Numerous people witnessed a meteorite descend over Winchcombe, Gloucestershire, in 2021, and it may have been a new meteorite class with organic compounds that could help explain the origins of life.
Amino acids, organic substances vital for living on Earth, were found in the UK’s first meteorite collected 30 years after it was spotted falling. Just 1.1 and 6.2 parts per million of amino acids and polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs) are present in the sample, which may make the finding even more intriguing.
A recent article reports that the Winchcombe meteorite not only includes organic materials but also represents a new class of meteorites. It contains some materials that have undergone changes that point to at least three brief eruptions of liquid water on the asteroid body from which it originated.
Dr. Queenie Chan holds up one of the four pieces of the Winchcombe meteorite. Small as this piece is, it’s a precious insight into the solar system’s evolution and possibly the origins of life.
At least at night, meteorites always produce a spectacular sky display before hitting the earth. To compute the orbits of asteroids from which meteorites are formed, we can more accurately determine objects’ flight paths thanks to the development of personal cameras and fireball monitoring networks.
The possible addition to understanding solar system evolution is significantly increased when the composition of a meteorite and its former orbit can be matched. Winchcombe was one of the first 40 meteorites whose sources within the asteroid belt could be identified thanks to information from the UK fireball network.
It was obvious right away that this was a significant discovery, and within two weeks, it was announced that water-bearing minerals were probably present. Winchcombe is a carbonaceous chondrite, which makes up only 4% of meteorites and may have provided the genetic material for life on Earth.
“Studying the organic inventory of the Winchcombe meteorite gave us a window into the past, how simple chemistry kick-started the origin of life at the birth of our solar system,” said Dr. Queenie Chan of the Royal Holloway University of London in a statement. “Discovering these life’s precursor organic molecules allowed us to comprehend the fall of similar material to the surface of the Earth, before the emergence of life on our planet.”
The meteorite’s value was increased because the first of the four remaining fragments were discovered within 12 hours of landing, giving little opportunity for contamination. Suppose it hadn’t been recovered so rapidly. In that case, the meteorite’s abundance of organic material, which was ten times lower than that of other carbonaceous chondrites, might not have been able to be distinguished from contamination from Earth. Since some of the amino acids discovered are uncommon on Earth, this supports their extraterrestrial beginnings.
The Winchcombe stones had some characteristics never before observed in meteorites, including uncommon ratios between the amino acid and PAH abundances for a carbonaceous chondrite and low amino acid abundance for a carbonaceous chondrite.
The authors hypothesized that Winchcombe might be a new type of meteorite that hasn’t been examined before due to the incomplete conversion of Winchcombe’s constituents into solid rock.
Very little of the Winchcombe meteorite reached the earth, possibly partly due to its fragile structure. Compared to a carbonaceous chondrite that arrived in Costa Rica in 2019 and weighed 27 kilograms (60 pounds), only 600 grams (1.3 pounds) have been retrieved. This stopped some analyses that called for large sample sizes.
Winchcombe, like most asteroids, is believed to have been a component of a larger asteroid; the portion that struck the Earth’s atmosphere was knocked off in a collision and spent a considerable amount of time wandering in space.
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