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Rare Meteorite Found in U.K. Driveway Could Hold Secrets of the Early Solar System

Thousands of people spotted the fireball on February 28, and more fragments may still be scattered in Gloucestershire

The meteorite is a carbonaceous chondrite. There are only 51 similar samples out of 65,000 meteorites in collections around the world. (Trustees of the Natural History Museum)
smithsonianmag.com

On February 28, a massive meteor shot over the United Kingdom. Thousands of people saw the fireball or captured its six-second burn on doorbell and dashboard cameras.

Now, the Natural History Museum in London has announced that the meteorite crash-landed in a driveway in Winchcombe, England. It’s the first meteorite to land intact in the U.K. for 31 years, and it’s a rare type of meteorite from somewhere between Mars and Jupiter that formed about 4.5 billion years ago. The meteorite is now housed at the Natural History Museum, where scientists can use it to study the early solar system.

The meteorite splattered itself across the driveway in front of the home of Rob and Cathryn Wilcock, who submitted images of the pile of black rock to the U.K. Meteor Observation Network, Jonathan Amos reports for BBC News.

Open University planetary scientist Richard Greenwood was the first to visit the family and check whether the rock on their driveway was a meteorite. “It’s emotional being the first one to confirm to the people standing in front of you that the thud they heard on their driveway overnight is in fact the real thing,” says Greenwood to the Guardian’s Ian Sample, adding that he was “in shock” when he saw it.

The Wilcock family heard a rattling noise the night the meteorite landed, but it was too dark to see what had happened. The next morning, they found the pile of dark-colored rocks and dust, and stored it in a plastic bag.

The pieces of rock are about the size of small marbles and resemble pieces of barbeque briquette, Open University space scientist Monica Grady tells Amos for BBC News.

“It is one of the most beautiful things I've ever seen,” she says.

The meteorite is classified as a carbonaceous chondrite, which is an rare piece of space debris that’s older than the planets in the solar system. This type of rock formed about 4.5 billion years ago and has barely changed since. Out of 65,000 meteorites in collections around the world, only 51 are the same type of meteorite as the one found in Winchcombe. It’s also the first of its kind to land in the United Kingdom.

“We study them to learn about how our solar system formed and the origin of habitable planets like the Earth,” says Natural History Museum meteorite expert Ashley King to New Scientist’s Will Gater.

The rock’s texture resembles soft clay, which means it may have once held ice, according to a statement by the museum. That also makes it very fragile. It probably only survived the fall through Earth’s atmosphere because it was fell at just over 29,000 miles per hour, which is relatively slow compared to other rocks hurtling around the solar system, which tend to hit Earth at more than five times that speed.

Scientists gathered about two-thirds of a pound of meteorite material from the property, including what was scattered on the driveway and additional bits of rock gathered over the next few days. King tells New Scientist that more pieces of the meteorite may still be scattered around Gloucestershire, and asks that local residents contact the Museum if they notice any unusually dark rocks.

Perhaps ironically, two space missions—OSIRIS-Rex by the United States and Hayabusa2 by Japan—just launched to land on carbonaceous asteroids, gather samples and return them to Earth. Hayabusa2 brought just under five grams of material to Earth, and OSIRIS-Rex will probably arrive with about 60 grams in 2023. But Greenwood says that the Winchcombe meteorite will be nearly as good a study subject as the samples collected in outer space.

"Yes, it will have been affected by passage through the atmosphere, but it must be very close to pristine,” says Greenwood to BBC News. “The chap in Winchcombe who collected it did so within 12 hours of falling. It's as good as you will ever get collected here on Earth."

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