A fragment of the Winchcombe meteorite CREDIT Trustees of the Natural History Museum

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Winchcombe meteorite holds information about the origin of Earth’s oceans

New study shows that carbonaceous asteroids played a key role in delivering the ingredients needed to kickstart oceans and life on the early Earth

  • The Winchcombe meteorite contains water similar to that found on Earth

  • New study shows that carbonaceous asteroids played a key role in delivering the ingredients needed to kickstart oceans and life on the early Earth

  • Winchcombe was blasted off an asteroid near Jupiter and travelled to Earth within the last million years

  • Samples of the meteorite are on display at the Natural History Museum

The Winchcombe meteorite, a rare carbonaceous meteorite which crashed onto a driveway in Gloucestershire, has been found to contain extra-terrestrial water and organic compounds that reveal insights into the origin of Earth’s oceans.

A new study led by experts from the Natural History Museum and the University of Glasgow reports the orbital history and first laboratory analyses of the Winchcombe meteorite, which was recovered only hours after its spectacular fireball lit up the skies over the UK in February 2021. 

Dr Ashley King of the Natural History Museum and author on the paper says, ‘The rapid retrieval and curation of Winchcombe make it one of the most pristine meteorites available for analysis, offering scientists a tantalising glimpse back through time to the original composition of the solar system 4.6-billion-years-ago.’

Analysis of the Winchcombe meteorite by specialists from across the world began within days of the fall. Winchcombe is a rare CM carbonaceous chondrite containing approximately 2 % carbon (by weight) and is the first ever meteorite of this type to be found in the UK. Through detailed imaging and chemical analyses, the team determined that Winchcombe contains approximately 11% extra-terrestrial water (by weight), most of which is locked-up in minerals that formed during chemical reactions between fluids and rocks on its parent asteroid in the earliest stages of the solar system. 

Crucially, the team were able to quickly measure the ratio of hydrogen isotopes in the water, finding it to closely resemble the composition of water on Earth. Extracts from the Winchcombe meteorite also contain extra-terrestrial amino acids – prebiotic molecules that are fundamental components for the origin of life. As the composition of the Winchcombe meteorite is largely unmodified by the terrestrial environment, these results indicate that carbonaceous asteroids played a key role in delivering the ingredients needed to kickstart oceans and life on the early Earth.

Rapid recovery of the Winchcombe meteorite was enabled by public reports and video footage of the fireball captured by 16 cameras coordinated by the UK Fireball Alliance (UKFAll). By combining the footage with chemical analysis of the meteorite, the team calculated that Winchcombe was blasted off the surface of an asteroid near Jupiter and travelled to Earth within the last million years. Pre-atmospheric orbits – the journey of an object around the Sun before arriving on Earth – are known for less than 0.1% of meteorites in the worldwide collection, with Winchcombe providing the strongest link yet between carbonaceous meteorites and asteroids in the outer regions of the solar system.

Dr Luke Daly, a lecturer in Planetary Geoscience at the University of Glasgow and author on the paper says, ‘One of the biggest questions asked of the scientific community is how did we get here? This analysis on the Winchcombe meteorite gives insight into how the Earth came to have water – the source of so much life. Researchers will continue to work on this specimen for years to come, unlocking more secrets into the origins of our solar system.’

Dr Natasha Almeida, Curator of Meteorites at the Natural History Museum and co-author says, ‘We’re still reeling from our good fortune to have such an important meteorite fall in the UK, and are so grateful to the local community for their donations and the UK’s cosmochemistry network for coming together to produce this extensive study. The combination of such a quick recovery, careful collection, and our ongoing curation of Winchcombe in a nitrogen atmosphere means this incredibly fresh specimen will remain one of the most pristine meteorites in collections worldwide.”

Samples of the Winchcombe meteorite are currently on public display at the Natural History Museum, the Winchcombe Museum, and The Wilson (Art Gallery), Cheltenham. The curation and first analyses of the Winchcombe meteorite were supported by the Science and Technology Facilities Council (STFC).

King, Daly et al. (2022) The Winchcombe meteorite, a unique and pristine witness from the outer Solar System, Science Advances DOI:10.1126/sciadv.abq3925.


Notes to editors

‘STFC-UKRI was pleased to be able to provide rapid funding to enable the urgent analysis of this amazing discovery and looks forward seeing more of the tantalising insights on the origins of our Solar System that are beginning to emerge from its study’ Dr Colin Vincent, Associate Director Astronomy, STFC-UKRI.

Images and press pack available here.

Press office contact  
Tel: 07799690151   
Email: press@nhm.ac.uk 

About the Natural History Museum:

The Natural History Museum is both a world-leading science research centre and the most-visited indoor attraction in the UK last year. With a vision of a future in which both people and the planet thrive, it is uniquely positioned to be a powerful champion for balancing humanity’s needs with those of the natural world. 

It is custodian of one of the world’s most important scientific collections comprising over 80 million specimens accessed by researchers from all over the world both in person and via over 30 billion digital data downloads to date. The Museum’s 350 scientists are finding solutions to the planetary emergency from biodiversity loss through to the sustainable extraction of natural resources.   
The Museum uses its global reach and influence to meet its mission to create advocates for the planet - to inform, inspire and empower everyone to make a difference for nature. We welcome millions of visitors through our doors each year, our website has had 17 million visits in the last year and our touring exhibitions have been seen by around 20 million people in the last 10 years. 

About the University of Glasgow:

The University of Glasgow is a top world 100 University (THE, QS) and was the Times and Sunday Times Good University of the Year 2022. The University is a member of the prestigious Russell Group of leading UK Universities and has annual research income of more than £180m. As a world-leading, research-intensive University, the University of Glasgow is committed to contributing towards the UN’s 17 Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) and has committed to carbon neutrality by 2030. Glasgow was the first UK University to declare it would divest from fossil fuels within a decade and the first in Scotland to declare a Climate Emergency.  In 2021, the University of Glasgow received a Queen’s Anniversary Prize for its national service to the Covid-19 pandemic.

About the UK Fireball Alliance:

The UK Fireball Alliance (UKFAll) is a collaboration between academics and citizen scientists interested in meteor observation and meteorite recovery. It was established in 2018 and in 2022 was awarded the Royal Astronomical Society’s Group Achievement prize for the recovery of the Winchcombe meteorite.

The networks are:

  • The UK Fireball Network, run by a team from Imperial College London and the University of Glasgow, supported by funding from the Science and Technology Facilities Council and the Australian Research Council, is part of Australia’s Curtin University-led Global Fireball Observatory operated by the Space Science and Technology Centre in collaboration with NASA and 18 international partners;

  • SCAMP, the UK part of the France-based FRIPON fireball network, which was funded by ANR in 2014 and now comprises 175 cameras and 25 radio receivers;

  • The UK Meteor Observation Network, a UK-based network of amateur astronomers;

The Winchcombe fireball was recorded by all six networks from locations as far away as the Netherlands and Wales. Trajectory and strewn field analysis was done by researchers from the Global Fireball Observatory at Curtin University in Western Australia, the FRIPON network in France and the University of Western Ontario in Canada.

Contributing academic institutions: 
Aix-Marseille Université, France; AllSky7 Meteor Camera Network; Amgueddfa Cymru - National Museum Wales, UK; Anatune Ltd, UK; Curtin University, Australia; Comenius University, Slovakia; Fireball Recovery and InterPlanetary Recovery (FRIPON), France; Global Meteor Network (GMN); Imperial College London, UK; INFN – Lab. Naz. Del Gran Sasso, Italy; Institute for Nuclear Research, Hungary; Isomass Scientific Inc., Canada; Muséum National d'Histoire Naturelle, France; Natural History Museum, UK; NEMETODE Network, UK; Observatoire de Paris, France; Royal Holloway, University of London, UK; Scottish Universities Environmental Research Centre (SUERC), UK; Spire Global, UK; System for Capture of Asteroid and Meteorite Paths (SCAMP), UK; The Open University, UK; The University of Manchester, UK; Toucan Energy Ltd, UK; UK Fireball Alliance (UKFAll), UK; UK Fireball Network (UKFN), UK; UK Meteor Observation Network (UKMON), UK; Université de Lille, France; Université Paris-Saclay, France; University of Arizona, USA; University of Bristol, UK; University of Cambridge, UK; University of Glasgow, UK; University of Kent, UK; University of Leicester, UK; University of Oxford, UK; University of Plymouth, UK; University of St. Andrews, UK; University of Sydney, Australia; Western University; London N6A 3K7, Canada.