Nov 20, 2022 I Paul Seaburn

A Pristine Meteorite From England May Show Us Where Our Water Came From

The surface of the Earth is about 70% water, but water is just a tiny percentage of the planet’s mass. That makes many scientists wonder if water was always part of Earth’s composition or if it could have been brought here from somewhere else. And if it was, how did it get here? A space rock that landed in Winchcombe, Gloucestershire, in the UK last year may be able to provide the answer. Could a meteorite have kickstarted the formation of water on Earth long before that term was confiscated by people looking for money?

Follow that meteor!

“Carbonaceous chondrites are incredibly reactive and rapidly degrade in Earth's atmosphere, changing their original mineralogy and composition. But for Winchcombe, it had almost no time to react with Earth's environment, so we know that everything inside it is 100 percent extraterrestrial including the 10 percent water it contains.”

Dr. Luke Daly from the University of Glasgow is one of the authors of “The Winchcombe meteorite, a unique and pristine witness from the outer solar system,” a study of this special watery space rock published recently in Science Advances. He explained to IFL Science that there is a variation of the five-second rule – the popular but scientifically questionable urban legend that food dropped on the floor has a five-second window before it starts picking up harmful bacteria or germs – for meteorites … the sooner they are recovered after impact, the less chance they will pick up contamination from the Earth’s surface or have their internal chemistry break down.

“The Winchcombe fireball occurred at 21:54:16 (UT) on 28 February 2021 and was recorded by 16 dedicated meteor cameras (fig. S1 and table S1). The fireball was also captured on numerous doorbell and dashcam videos, and there were >1000 eyewitness accounts and reports of a sonic boom to the International Meteor Organization (IMO) and UK Meteor Observation Network (UKMON). The main mass (319.5 g) of the meteorite was discovered the next day in the town of Winchcombe, Gloucestershire, UK.”

In fact, it was found in the driveway of Rob and Cathryn Wilcock. (Photos of the rock and its fragments and dust can be seen here.) Because it was so well tracked and the Wilcocks reported finding it so quickly, researchers were able to be at the location within 12 hours and, using rubber gloves, collect the largest piece as well as piles of nuggets and powder and place them in sealed polyethylene bags. The largest piece of the Winchcombe meteorite was the Wilcocks’ 11.2 ounce chunk. Another large 152 gram (5.3 ounce) piece was found on a farm on March 6. All told, 531.5 grams (18.7 5 ounces) of material was recovered less than 7 days after the meteorite fell – a period of no rainfall. Most space rock researchers agree with what planetary scientist Ashley King of London’s Natural History Museum told Science News:

“It’s as pristine as we’re going to get from a meteorite. Other than it landing in the museum on my desk, or other than sending a spacecraft up there, we can’t really get them any quicker or more pristine.”

King led the research on the meteorite – the team polished the material, heated it, and blasted it with electrons, X-rays and lasers.  to figure out what elements and minerals it contained. This helped them determine it is a very type of rare, carbon-rich carbonaceous chondrite meteorite called a CM chrondite. By analyzing the videos – from doorbell cams to tracking by the UK Fireball Alliance of 16 meteor-watching cameras around the world – they were able to map its trajectory and determine the rock came from a larger asteroid near the orbit of Jupiter, breaking off about 300,000 years ago. That is a short trip in meteor terms, which adds to the special nature of this rock. As Dr. Luke Daly noted, the meteorite was 10-11 percent water by weight. That H2O was locked in hydrated minerals and the hydrogen was in the form of deuterium, with the ratio of hydrogen to deuterium in the meteorite being close to that of the Earth’s atmosphere. that find was the “Ah ha!” moment for Ashley King.

“It’s a good indication that water [on Earth] was coming from water-rich asteroids.”

But wait … there’s more! The space rocks also contained amino acids and other organic materials.

“These are the building blocks for things like DNA. (They) don’t contain life, but they have the starting point for life locked up in them.”

King has now planted two seeds – water on Earth came from somewhere else, and life on Earth could also have dropped in on a chunk from an asteroid. That makes this the Wilcocks’ rock even more special … and it just keeps getting better. Daly told IFL Science that the rock to land in Winchcombe was extremely lucky to have survived the trip through the atmosphere. because carbonaceous chondrites are extremely crumbly.

"The meteorite before it hit Earth's atmosphere was really small, only originally about the size of a basketball, and if it had come it at a slightly different angle or slightly slower or faster would have completely burnt up in the atmosphere."

According to the Natural History Museum press release, besides the 11 percent water and 2 percent carbon, the meteorite was made up of phyllosilicates, clay-rich minerals that are promising candidates for hosting and preserving evidence of organic matter. The Winchcombe meteorite has no evidence of life, but it landed with organic molecules such as lipids and fatty acids. It also brought other materials -- hydrocarbons, metals such as iron, titanium and aluminium, and trapped noble gases like neon.

You've got 12 hours to get here with rubber gloves and plastic bags!

In a sense, the Winchcombe meteorite being picked up with the 12-hour-rule accomplished in a day what the probes to asteroids Ryugu and Bennu took years to accomplish – bring back pristine samples of asteroids as they existed billions of years ago when the solar system was first created. The Winchcombe sample will soon be compared to those samples. Ashley King expressed to Science News why this is so exciting:

“We only know where less than one percent of meteorites we have studied come from, so Winchcombe represents an important find. When we study meteorites with known origins, we can find out what the mineralogy and chemistry of their parent bodies are like.”

We could be close to determining where Earth’s water came from … and that could potentially tell us where Earth’s life came from – or at least where the building blocks originated from. If you find something unusual in your driveway (other than what the dogwalker left),  it pays to pick it up with rubber gloves, put it in a bag and save it. It could be the answer to one of life’s biggest questions. Just remember the 12-hour rule.

Paul Seaburn

Paul Seaburn is the editor at Mysterious Universe and its most prolific writer. He’s written for TV shows such as "The Tonight Show", "Politically Incorrect" and an award-winning children’s program. He's been published in “The New York Times" and "Huffington Post” and has co-authored numerous collections of trivia, puzzles and humor. His “What in the World!” podcast is a fun look at the latest weird and paranormal news, strange sports stories and odd trivia. Paul likes to add a bit of humor to each MU post he crafts. After all, the mysterious doesn't always have to be serious.

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