University scientists help to unlock hidden secrets of UK meteorite

A variety of images from the JEOL 7001F SEM within PEMC. The top images (black and white) are backscattered electron images, showing atomic contrast in the Winchcombe meteorite; bright areas are metal-rich, containing nickel, iron, or chromium, whereas darker areas are mineral-rich. The bottom, coloured images are combined X-ray element maps of the same regions, showing chemical composition of the mineral and metal grains. These maps show the variety of different textures, size and composition of grains within the Winchcombe meteorite

Scientists from the University of Plymouth are helping to uncover the secrets of a rare meteorite which could possibly reveal the origins of oceans and life on Earth.

Research carried out on the Winchcombe meteorite, which fell in and around the Gloucestershire town earlier this year, estimates the space rock dates back to the beginning of the solar system, 4.5 billion years ago.

The meteorite was tracked using video footage from the UK’s meteor camera networks, including the UK Fireball Network, and fragments where then quickly located and recovered.

Since the discovery, UK planetary scientists – including Dr Natasha Stephen and colleagues in the University’s Plymouth Electron Microscopy Centre (PEMC) – have been trying to determine its mineralogy and chemistry to better understand how the solar system formed.

They have found the meteorite is a carbonaceous chondrite – a stony material, rich in water and organic matter, which has retained its chemistry from the formation of the solar system.

In fact, initial analyses – funded by the Science and Technology Facilities Council (STFC) – have shown it to be a member of the CM (“Mighei-type”) group of carbonaceous chondrites, a classification has now been formally approved by the Meteoritical Society.

The funding has enabled the project team, led by Dr Ashley King from London's Natural History Museum, to use X-rays and learn about how the meteorite was formed.

It has also enabled the Natural History Museum to invest in state-of-the-art curation facilities and supported time-sensitive mineralogical and organic analyses in specialist laboratories at several leading UK institutions.

Dr King, a UK Research and Innovation (UKRI) Future Leaders Fellow in the Department of Earth Sciences at the Natural History Museum, said:

“Winchcombe is the first meteorite fall to be recovered in the UK for 30 years and the first ever carbonaceous chondrite to be recovered in our country. STFC’s funding is aiding us with this unique opportunity to discover the origins of water and life on Earth. Through the funding, we have been able to invest in state-of-the-art equipment that has contributed to our analysis and research into the Winchcombe meteorite.”

In Plymouth, that work includes analysing small samples of Winchcombe to determine both the fine and coarse-grained mineralogy of the meteorite.

Preliminary results of chemical and micro-structural analyses of the different textures in Winchcombe have shown in-tact chondrules, metals, and mineral fragments, all held within the fine-grained matrix, which represent some of the earliest materials to form in the Solar System.

The work has been carried out by Dr Natasha Stephen, Lecturer in Advanced Analysis (Earth & Planetary Sciences), and PEMC technicians Dr Jennifer Mitchell and Lorelei Robertson.

They have also been supported by planetary science postgraduate student Francesca Willcocks, and they are all using the cutting edge electron microscopes within PEMC to conduct the investigation.

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

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

Dr Stephen, 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 added:

“Collecting meteorites in the field is always special, but doing it in your home country is even more so. Now we have a piece of Winchcombe to analyse right here in Plymouth. It’s the first time we’ve had a British meteorite in the lab, so everyone is incredibly excited and keen to be a part of the initial analyses. The small planetary geology group we have here are all helping, thanks to STFC funding, so it’s been a fantastic catalyst for a new study bringing together academics, technicians and students.”

<p>A resin-mounted sample of the Winchcombe meteorite. This whole block is placed inside the scanning electron microscope and imaged non-destructively using electron beams and X-rays<br></p>
<p>Live data on our JEOL 7001F scanning electron microscope. Each colour represents a different chemical element, analysed using X-rays, showing a combined chemistry image on the left monitor and individual element X-ray maps on the right monitor<br></p>
<p>The Plymouth team analysing samples -&nbsp;Dr
Natasha Stephen (front), postgraduate student Cesca Willcocks (middle) and technical specialist Dr Jennifer Mitchell (back)



</p>

The above images, from left, show:

  • A resin-mounted sample of the Winchcombe meteorite. This whole block is placed inside the scanning electron microscope and imaged non-destructively using electron beams and X-rays
  • Live data on our JEOL 7001F scanning electron microscope. Each colour represents a different chemical element, analysed using X-rays, showing a combined chemistry image on the left monitor and individual element X-ray maps on the right monitor
  • The Plymouth team analysing samples of the Winchcombe meteorite - Dr Natasha Stephen (front), postgraduate student Cesca Willcocks (middle) and technical specialist Dr Jennifer Mitchell (back)

<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>

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Francesca Wilcocks

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"I chose to study in Plymouth because I really like the area and its closeness to the sea. I also had friends who did their geology degrees at the University of Plymouth and they really enjoyed the course. The range of field trips that were advertised was also a big incentive.

I’ve found the subject really inspiring. We are still finding so much new information about planetary science, and it’s really rewarding. Before I came to Plymouth, I had a huge interest in planetary science but I didn’t think there was anywhere to go career-wise in the subject. Since then, I have been introduced to so many people and opportunities that will allow me to get my foot in the door within the field."

Francesca Wilcocks

Francesca Wilcocks

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