Western scientists help track rare meteorite

Image of the fireball taken by the Global Meteor Network camera in Hullavington, Wiltshire, U.K., February 28, 2021. Photo by Paul Dickinson (GMN)

An “extremely rare” meteorite has been found in the U.K., thanks to the help of Western University researchers.

The space rock was captured on camera falling to Earth by the UK Fireball Alliance and Global Meteor Network (GMN) on February 28. The GMN is a world-wide network of professional and amateur astronomers operating 300 cameras in 22 countries. It is coordinated by Denis Vida, a meteor physics postdoctoral associate at Western.

Using the video footage, the network was able to pinpoint where the meteorite landed in Winchcombe, England and recover almost 300 grams of it.

“It turned out that they were of an extremely rare meteorite type, a carbonaceous chondrite. So far, this is only the fifth meteorite of this type with a known orbit, and the most pristine one because it was recovered immediately after the fall,” said Vida.

Carbonaceous chondrites have been in a deep freeze for the last 4.5 billion years, untouched by any heating. They are the remnants of the formation of the Solar System and contain organics and amino acids – the ingredients for life.

Vida’s role in the extraordinary recovery began when he was asked by the UK Fireball Alliance to determine the trajectory of the fireball using state-of-the-art software at Western. After reviewing the data, he identified two U.K.-based cameras that captured the fireball and determined some meteorites had indeed hit the ground. The camera network tracked the fragments to the velocity of 3 km/s, the theoretical limit at which meteors slow down so much that they stop producing light. It quickly became clear the largest four fragments visible in the video had a mass of around 100 grams.

Using this information, the meteorites were found immediately after the fall.

They are now being studied by a scientific team as part of an unprecedented worldwide research effort aimed at providing answers to questions about the early history of the solar system and life on Earth.

“Imagine you take some eggs, flour, and sugar. You follow a recipe, mix them together and bake them in the oven. Voila, you have nice cake,” said Vida. “The cake is our Solar System. Baked, mixed, changed. In this analogy, carbonaceous chondrites are a chunky mix of eggs, flour and sugar that somehow ended up in the freezer, and we’re using them now to figure out how the cake, in this case the Solar System, was made.”

Vida added the rare meteorite provides evidence of liquid water outside the Earth.

“Some contain up to 20 per cent water, and are full of organic compounds, including amino acids,” Vida said.