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

A fragment of the Winchcombe meteorite which landed on Earth in February 2021 (Credit: Trustees of the Natural History Museum)

The Winchcombe meteorite, a rare carbonaceous meteorite which crashed to Earth in early 2021, has been found to contain extra-terrestrial water and organic compounds that reveal insights into the origin of Earth’s oceans.
A new study by specialists from across the world – including experts from the University of Plymouth’s Plymouth Electron Microscopy Centre (PEMC) – reports the orbital history and first laboratory analyses of the meteorite.
Work to analyse the meteorite began within days of it landing onto a driveway in Gloucestershire, and its rapid recovery was enabled by public reports and video footage captured by the UK Fireball Alliance (UKFAll).
Dr Natasha Stephen, Director of the Plymouth Electron Microscopy Centre, was the third scientist on the scene after the meteorite was reported and has since worked alongside colleagues Dr Jen Mitchell and Francesca Willcocks as part of the analysis team.
Dr Stephen said:
“It’s really exciting to finally see this information in the public domain. This paper is the first in a series of studies that the Winchcombe science team has prepared, but it reveals some of the headline findings that are so important – and often unique – to this meteorite.
"The quick recovery and almost immediate scientific analyses gave us an unrivalled window into asteroidal processes preserved in this carbonaceous rock. Coupled with the calculated pre-atmospheric orbits, it makes the Winchcombe meteorite very special indeed.”
Dr Natasha Stephen, lecturer in the School of Geography

Dr Natasha Stephen has spent more than a decade analysing meteorites

Through the analysis process, the research team – led by the Natural History Museum and the University of Glasgow – discovered that 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 was able to quickly measure the ratio of hydrogen isotopes in the water, finding that it closely resembles 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 its composition 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.
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 began its journey 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 Ashley King, of the Natural History Museum, is lead author on the paper published in Science Advances. He said:
“The rapid retrieval and curation of Winchcombe make it one of the most pristine meteorites available for analysis. It offers scientists a tantalising glimpse back through time to the original composition of the solar system 4.6-billion-years-ago.”
Dr Luke Daly, a lecturer in Planetary Geoscience at the University of Glasgow, added:
“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.”
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.
  • The full study – King, Daly et al: The Winchcombe meteorite, a unique and pristine witness from the outer Solar System – is published in Science Advances DOI: 10.1126/sciadv.abq3925.

Finding and analysing the Winchcombe meteorite

"The quick recovery and almost immediate scientific analyses gave us an unrivalled window into asteroidal processes preserved in this carbonaceous rock. Coupled with the calculated pre-atmospheric orbits, it makes the Winchcombe meteorite very special indeed.”

Dr Natasha Stephen, Director of the Plymouth Electron Microscopy Centre

Read more about our work on this project
<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>

A resin-mounted sample of the Winchcombe meteorite

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