Search for building blocks of life in 4.6 billion year old meteorite

A team of space researchers found parts of a meteorite that burned up over southwest England embedded in a muddy field in Gloucestershire during lockdown.

The ‘face’ of the meteorite discovered near Woodmancote, Gloucestershire, in March 2021 (credit: EAARO)

The charcoal-black object was found by analytical chemist Derek Robson on the second day of a ground search near the village of Woodmancote that was organised by members of the East Anglian Astrophysical Research Organisation (EAARO).

They received special permission from Tewkesbury Council to organise the search during the Covid lockdown after the bright yellow-green fireball was seen in the skies above the UK shortly before 10pm the night of 28 February.

Laboratory analysis at the University of Loughborough has confirmed ‘an extra-terrestrial meteoritic composition’ for the fragments consistent with a carbonaceous chondrite meteorite.

The news follows the recovery of a 300 gram (11 oz) fragment on a driveway in the village of Winchcombe, Gloucestershire. The pieces, thought to be the first meteorite found in Britain since 1991, are being studied by experts at The Natural History Museum.

The seven-strong EAARO team was assembled by Jason Williams within days of the appearance of the fireball that was captured by specialist detection cameras as well as doorbell cameras.

Jason said several thousand meteors burn up in the atmosphere every day often over the oceans and uninhabited regions. Those that occur at night are often missed because there are so few people around to observe them.

‘So when I received a phone call from a very excited colleague who had successfully captured video data of a meteor fireball seen in the skies above the UK I felt compelled to put together a search team to hunt for possible fragments,’ Jason said.

 ‘As the UK was in lockdown due to the Covid pandemic we had to seek official permission to search the area. This was granted and we set out with camera data and accurate information regarding the meteorite’s trajectory.’

A number of sites highlighted as possible landing areas were in hazardous industrial locations and the team was issued with PPE and two-way radios prior to the searches.

The meteorite fragment (credit: EAARO)

The first day’s search failed to locate any fragments but on the way home, whilst travelling east along the A14, Jason and Rob both saw a very bright meteor heading in the same direction.

‘We joked that this was a sign to organise a return visit,’ Jason said.

On the morning of 28 March – one month after the fireball – the team began searching muddy  fields near the village of Woodmancote in Gloucestershire.

Less than half an hour later Derek, from Loughborough, came across a dark stone embedded in the mud and called out to the others. As they gathered around a small crater no more than two inches wide, they immediately recognised the object as a fresh meteorite.  Derek said. ‘We could see a fusion crust and iridescence – a lustrous rainbow of colours that changed whilst viewing from different angles.  As the realisation sank in, our feelings changed to excitement sharing a very special moment’.

Robert Young, EAARO’s IT director, holding a fragment of the meteor after the discovery (credit: EAARO)

‘It was hard work and on the second weekend search, thinking of the vast areas covered with no luck, in pain and downhearted, I felt like giving up’.

‘At times of need I sometimes call upon my late Dad for help. In the field I said “come on Dad, help me find a meteorite” and within half an hour I came across the fragments embedded in the mud’.

Since the meteorite was found impacted well into the ground, the team decided to remove the fragments in situ by cutting out a rectangular section of the mud. This was then photographed and carefully wrapped before it was removed and taken to EAARO’s HQ in Huntingdon.

The meteorite fragment has an uncanny resemblance to a human face and Derek said it could be compared to the so-called ‘face on Mars’, an optical illusion photographed in the Cydonia region of the red planet by the Viking orbiter in 1976.

The following week Cambridge Clinical Laboratories offered to assist the team delicately remove the fragments from the mud and carefully weigh, measure and photograph each piece for storing in a laboratory-controlled environment.

Jason and Derek agreed on a chemical analysis strategy. ‘For volatile organic compounds it is particularly important to analyse meteorite samples as soon as possible,’ Jason explained.

Scanning electron microscope image showing spherical objects on surface of fragment (credit: EAARO)

‘While curating the meteorite fragments we noticed they exhibited a strong odour which we believe indicates the presence of volatile organic substances that may provide an exciting insight into the origin of this material and the early solar system’.

EAARO is working with a number of UK universities, commercial laboratories and overseas scientists studying this fascinating remnant of the early solar system.

Work began early in May 2021 and is currently ongoing. Jason Williams, managing director of EAARO – a not for profit, charitable company, said:

Finding the meteorite in Woodmancote has created opportunities which align with our aims – to inspire and educate people in science, technology, engineering, art and mathematics through exciting and meaningful space research projects’.

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