Winchcombe meteorite to go on public display

Jonathan Amos
Science correspondent
@BBCAmoson Twitter

Published
media captionFamily who found fragments of Winchcombe meteorite visit Natural History Museum display

From Monday, you'll get a chance to see the most famous space rock in Britain.

The meteorite that fell on the Gloucestershire town of Winchcombe in February is going on public display at London's Natural History Museum.

Scientists are busy studying the rock because it holds within it chemistry that existed at the formation of our Solar System 4.6 billion years ago.

But they've got enough material to enable a 100g chunk to also be shown off to museum visitors.

To the uninitiated, the display meteorite looks like a small piece of half-burnt coal. Lean in close, though, and you can see some strands of grass and even some mud. This is something that fell out of the sky into a field.

media captionDr Helena Bates: "We hope this will reinvigorate meteorite science in the UK"

Victoria Bond, whose land that was and who's donated the rock fragment to the museum, is still surprised by the discovery.

She'd given permission for scientists to come on to her farm to perform a systematic sweep, but doubted anything would be found among all the sheep faeces that covered the ground.

"They were moving like zombies, pacing back and forth in a line, looking for the meteorite," she recalls. "And as I left that morning in my car, I could see them jumping for joy.

"How they found it is amazing. I'm thinking of putting a plaque in the field because the footpath, the Cotswold Way, is no more than 100 yards away."

image copyrightNatasha Stephen (@EMC_PlymUni)
image captionThe thrill of it: It's difficult to overstate the importance of this find

From the many videos of the incoming fireball that were recorded that Sunday night, and also from the thousands of eyewitness accounts, researchers had been able to correctly identify where in England rocky debris might come down. And the subsequent searches turned up trumps. It was Mira Ihasz in a University of Glasgow-led sweep of the Bond land that spotted something precious among the sheep poo.

That discovery may have been the single biggest chunk recovered in the Winchcombe area, but the museum has many more pieces now in its collection - roughly 500g.

They are kept in a special box to keep them dry. Each piece is in a little bag. Lumps larger than a pea are wrapped in foil first.

Much of the material comes from the driveway of the Wilcock family. Their home was in the crosshairs of the fireball.

Rob, his wife Cathryn and daughter Hannah had carefully picked up some of the debris that went splat on the tarmac. Museum scientists then came in to sweep up the remaining dust using a toothbrush and an empty cottage cheese pot.

media captionDr Ashley King: "Winchcombe takes us back to 'year zero' for the Solar System"

Believe it or not, those plastic ephemera are now part of the national collection, too. As will be a square of the dented Wilcock driveway when it's dug up. These artefacts are all part of the story and will eventually join the Bond fragment on display.

"It's fabulous to see the Winchcombe meteorite finally on show. It's so beautiful," says Cathryn. "It's mind-blowing," adds Hannah.

There's some crazy money being offered online right now by privateer collectors seeking to buy or sell Winchcombe space rock.

But Rob says the family never thought of selling their share: "We wanted the meteorite (to go to the museum) to inspire young people to get into science and do lots of good work. We owe a lot to scientists at the moment and I think we should inspire the next generation."

image copyrightMira Ihasz
image captionDelicate rock: The Bond fragment broke in two when it was picked up

Dr Helena Bates, the interim curator of meteorites at the Natural History Museum, certainly hopes that will be the case.

"This is the first meteorite to be observed to fall and then be recovered in the UK for 30 years," she tells BBC News.

"But the other thing is, we have not had a carbonaceous chondrite ever fall in the UK. Carbonaceous chondrites are really, really special, because they are basically some of the oldest, most pristine material we could possibly get to look at.

"They're like time capsules from the beginning of the Solar System. That piece of rock that fell in Gloucestershire has a 4.567-billion-year history."

image captionA section of the Wilcock driveway will be dug up for display

Scientists in the UK and abroad are subjecting the meteorite pieces to a battery of tests.

You might think that 500g - the weight of half a bag of sugar - represents an inadequate supply for all the researchers who want to examine it. But it's actually ample. Space missions sent to retrieve similar rock from asteroids would be thrilled to grab as much.

The museum's Dr Ashley King is bombarding a tiny bit with X-rays to reveal its mineral make-up.

"Each kind of mineral has its own characteristic X-ray pattern. It's like a fingerprint," he says.

"When the Solar System was forming, there was this huge cloud of gas and dust with the Sun at the centre, and then everything started accreting together to make bigger bodies, like the asteroids and the comets and eventually the planets. This meteorite tells us what minerals were present back then."

image copyrightNHM
image captionThe Wilcock family: It's all about the science

The scientists know enough already about Winchcombe to make a submission to the international body that classifies meteorites.

It's very probably what's referred to as a CM carbonaceous chondrite. CMs are highly prized because they contain abundant organic, or carbon-rich, molecules. This, obviously, is chemistry that fascinates researchers because it lies at the basis of life.

We don't have traces of biological activity on Earth until almost a billion years after the Solar System's formation, but studying meteorites like Winchcombe could give us clues as to how life got going on our planet.

That's an amazing thought as you gaze at the 100g block in the museum's glazed display-case.

The Natural History Museum reopens to the public on Monday after its enforced Covid closure. To get in, visitors must book a free timed ticket in advance online at the museum's website.

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