University researcher helps to recover first meteorite found in UK for 30 years

From a video by Ben Stanley, processed by Markus Kempf, the AllSky7 network

A team of UK scientists, including a researcher from the University of Plymouth, has recovered pieces of an extremely rare meteorite, the like of which has never fallen anywhere in the UK before.

Dr Natasha Stephen, Lecturer in Advanced Analysis (Earth & Planetary Sciences), was part of a collaborative effort to locate and analyse fragments of the meteorite that lit up the sky over the UK and Northern Europe on Sunday 28 February.

Hundreds of pieces of the rare meteorite, known as a carbonaceous chondrite, survived its passage through the Earth’s atmosphere and landed in and around the town of Winchcombe, Gloucestershire.

Specialised cameras located across the country as part of UK Fireball Alliance (UKFAll) were able to recreate the flight path, allowing scientists to determine exactly where in the solar system it came from, and predict where it fell.

The original space rock was travelling at nearly 14km per second before hitting the Earth’s atmosphere and the meteorite was retrieved in such a good condition, so quickly after its fall, that it is comparable to the samples returned from space missions, both in quality and quantity.

Dr Natasha Stephen during the search for fragments of the Winchcombe meteorite

Dr Natasha Stephen during the search for fragments of the Winchcombe meteorite

The salvage mission was led by researchers at the Natural History Museum and, as well as Dr Stephen, also involved scientists from The University of Glasgow, The University of Manchester, The Open University, and Imperial College London.

Dr Stephen, who is also Director of the Plymouth Electron Microscopy Centre, has spent more than a decade analysing Martian meteorites and has been on meteorite hunting expeditions all over the world. She said:

“I’ve been hunting for meteorites several times now, including on fireball searches when a camera has spotted something, but never in the UK. At the time of the last UK event, I was only just starting school. So to have the opportunity to find a UK meteorite as a professional meteorite scientist is just amazing, and not something I was sure would ever happen here at home.”

There are approximately 65,000 known meteorites on Earth and over 1,000 the size of a football are believed to fall to Earth every year.

However, only 1,206 have been witnessed to fall and, of these, only 51 are carbonaceous chondrites.

This is the first known carbonaceous chondrite to have been found in the UK, and the first meteorite recovered in the UK in 30 years.

The last meteorite that was discovered in the UK was the Glatton meteorite that landed in a residential garden in 1991.

The fireball was seen by thousands of eyewitnesses across the UK and northern Europe, many of whom reported it to the UK Meteor Observation Network, and was captured on many fireball cameras and home surveillance cameras when it fell to Earth at 21:54 on Sunday 28 February.

Dr Ashley King, UK Research and Innovation Future Leaders Fellow in the Department of Earth Sciences at the Natural History Museum, was among the first on the scene when the meteorite was discovered and has been advising on its handling and care. He said:

“Nearly all meteorites come to us from asteroids, the leftover building blocks of the solar system that can tell us how planets like the Earth formed. The opportunity to be one of the first people to see and study a meteorite that was recovered almost immediately after falling is a dream come true.”

Many of the fragments have now been safely moved to the Natural History Museum where they will be properly cared for until it begins an official process of classification to establish its validity and precise scientific significance.

<p>A fragment of the Winchcombe meteorite (Credit: Trustees of the Natural History Museum)<br></p>
(Images courtesy of the Trustees of the Natural History Museum)
<p>Scientists examine part of the meteorite recovered from Winchcombe 

(Credit: Trustees of the Natural History Museum)

<br></p>

Read more of Dr Natasha Stephen's thoughts on the Winchcombe meteorite

What do you know about the meteorite so far?

As soon as we saw the meteorite we knew it was something special. It’s so dark inside, and that isn’t common. It meant very quickly that we suspected it was a carbonaceous chondrite, and could see some exciting inclusions. One of the team was able to take a piece and run some analyses the next day up at the Open University to determine its oxygen isotopes, which tells us where it might have come from in the Solar System and what type it is. These quickly confirmed it was a CM-type carbonaceous chondrite – so it’s all very exciting, and only just a week old.

What could it mean for our understanding of space?

Carbonaceous chondrites are really exciting as they contain some of the earliest building blocks of the Solar System, things that have been preserved unchanged for ~4.7 billion years. These meteorites also typically contain water and organic signatures, including amino acids, which is incredible given their age – these are the building blocks required for life, and here we have them preserved from the very birth of our Solar System. There are space missions that are deliberately collecting this type of material directly from asteroids, including Hayabusa2 and OSIRIS-Rex. Hayabusa2 returned in December 2020 with just 5g of similar material, and here we have a UK meteorite fall of more than 300g. It’s incredible to have that mass of new, fresh material to investigate here at home.

How does the meteorite itself compare to others you’ve seen or held?

It’s very different. Most meteorites – even if we see them fall and go searching for them – aren’t recovered in a matter of hours like this one was.

The closest I’ve seen is the Tissint meteorite, which fell in 2011 and was found within three months – we had it in our hands within six months for scientific investigation. To hold a meteorite that has only been on Earth for a matter of hours, rather than weeks or months, is just amazing. It doesn’t compare at all.

How rare is it to find so many fragments in such a short space of time?

It’s not as rare as you might think, but it depends on the meteorite. Most meteorites will fragment when they enter Earth’s atmosphere so it’s quite common for a ‘strewn field’ to be drawn up for a meteorite fall. This is a map with a suspected path over which fragments of a single meteorite might fall, which can be 15km in length. Larger fragments typically travel the furthest, so will be at the front of this flight path, with smaller fragments dropping out earlier or even being blown around by the wind. Because of this fragmentation, it can be quite common to find multiple pieces of the same meteorite, especially if a team of people are out looking for them. Several famous falls, including Tissint and Allende, have been found in multiple pieces – even hundreds of fragments – which when combined total many kilograms of material.

What happens now in terms of any work you might do on the fragments?

The material went straight to the national meteorite collection at the Natural History Museum (London) for cataloguing, and to ensure it was placed in a desiccator as soon as possible to preserve it. From there, the UK team is discussing who is going to do what analysis, and where is best to maximise the science return. It’s a collaborative effort, so all team members will have the opportunity to contribute towards the science, and we’ll get our students involved too. Hopefully that science will start this week, and early results can be disseminated quickly to the public who helped find the meteorite in the first place.

<p>Meteorites recovered from Winchcombe CREDIT Trustees of the Natural History Museum<br></p>
(Images courtesy of the Trustees of the Natural History Museum)
<p>Meteorite recovered from Winchcombe CREDIT Trustees of the Natural History Museum<br></p>

Read more information linked to this article

School of Geography, Earth and Environmental Sciences

Our courses in this area are consistently ranked among the best in the world and we have researchers considered leaders in their field in chemistry, geography, geology and environmental science.

Find out more about the school

Plymouth Electron Microscopy Centre

Our flagship facility provides access to a comprehensive suite of light microscopes, electron microscopes (EM), image processing and analysis software, plus decades of experience from our team of specialists.

We support students, researchers, academics and businesses across a range of disciplines and sectors, from engineering and advanced manufacturing to geology, textiles, planetary science and beyond. 

Find out more about our work, and how we can help you with our state-of-the-art equipment