Scientists from the University of Plymouth are helping to uncover the secrets of a rare meteorite which could possibly reveal the origins of oceans and life on Earth.
Research carried out on the Winchcombe meteorite, which fell in and around the Gloucestershire town earlier this year, estimates the space rock dates back to the beginning of the solar system, 4.5 billion years ago.
The meteorite was tracked using video footage from the UK’s meteor camera networks, including the UK Fireball Network, and fragments where then quickly located and recovered.
Since the discovery, UK planetary scientists – including Dr Natasha Stephen and colleagues in the University’s Plymouth Electron Microscopy Centre (PEMC) – have been trying to determine its mineralogy and chemistry to better understand how the solar system formed.
They have found the meteorite is a carbonaceous chondrite – a stony material, rich in water and organic matter, which has retained its chemistry from the formation of the solar system.
In fact, initial analyses – funded by the Science and Technology Facilities Council (STFC) – have shown it to be a member of the CM (“Mighei-type”) group of carbonaceous chondrites, a classification has now been formally approved by the Meteoritical Society.
Dr Natasha Stephen during the search for fragments of the Winchcombe meteorite
Dr Stephen, Director of the Plymouth Electron Microscopy Centre, has spent more than a decade analysing Martian meteorites and has been on meteorite hunting expeditions all over the world. She added:
“Collecting meteorites in the field is always special, but doing it in your home country is even more so. Now we have a piece of Winchcombe to analyse right here in Plymouth. It’s the first time we’ve had a British meteorite in the lab, so everyone is incredibly excited and keen to be a part of the initial analyses. The small planetary geology group we have here are all helping, thanks to STFC funding, so it’s been a fantastic catalyst for a new study bringing together academics, technicians and students.”
Current student: ResM Geological Sciences
“I chose to study in Plymouth because I really like the area and its closeness to the sea. I also had friends who did their geology degrees at the University of Plymouth and they really enjoyed the course. The range of field trips that were advertised was also a big incentive.
I’ve found the subject really inspiring. We are still finding so much new information about planetary science, and it’s really rewarding. Before I came to Plymouth, I had a huge interest in planetary science but I didn’t think there was anywhere to go career-wise in the subject. Since then, I have been introduced to so many people and opportunities that will allow me to get my foot in the door within the field.”
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