On February 28, 2021, a fireball was observed over the sleepy village of Winchcombe in Gloucestershire, England. A meteorite from the asteroid belt near Jupiter was bearing down on the town.
Fortunately for the residents of Winchcombe (and indeed the rest of us), this meteorite was only around 30 cm (12 inches) in diameter (compared to the 15 km (nine-mile) monstrosity that wiped out the dinosaurs.). While not being particularly hazardous to life on this planet, the Winchcombe meteorite has given us a unique insight into the conditions of our outer solar system.
The Winchcombe meteorite is unique for a number of reasons. First, its entry into the Earth’s atmosphere was observed from multiple angles, allowing the trajectory to be precisely reconstructed. We know from this that the Winchcombe meteorite originated from the main asteroid belt between Mars and Jupiter. Second, the meteorite was recovered incredibly quickly, meaning that very little terrestrial contamination could occur. This offers a near-pristine window into the geological history of primitive asteroids and the chemical — and dynamic — evolution of volatiles in the early solar system.
Recently, an exciting study of the Winchcombe meteorite has used a wide variety of analytical chemistry to characterize this sample. Scientists used a host of Thermo Scientific instrumentation to perform elemental and isotopic analysis of the meteorite:
Neon isotope analysis at Oxford University were used for exposure age dating (Argus VI™ Static Vacuum Noble Gas MS)
Major and trace element abundance analysis at the Natural History Museum, UK, were used to determine the meteorite classification (Thermo Scientific™ iCap™ 6500 Duo ICP-OES).
Bulk oxygen isotopes at the Open University, UK, were also used to determine the meteorite classification (MAT 253 IRMS).
Titanium and chromium isotope ratios determination at the University of Bristol and University of St. Andrews were used to support the meteorite classification (Neptune™ MC-ICP-MS).
Liquid chromatography and mass spectrometry at the University of Glasgow was used to assess the level of terrestrial contamination (Thermo Scientific™ Dionex UltiMate™ 3000 HPLC system coupled to a Thermo Scentific™ Q Exactive™ Orbitrap™ MS).
Transmission electron microscopy at the University of Glasgow and University of Leicester were used to classify the meteorite and identify carbon- and nitrogen-bearing nanoglobules. (Helios™ Plasma focused ion beam (FIB) and Quanta 200 3D FIB-SEM.)
The information from the suite of analyses has provided the most compelling evidence to date that water arrived on Earth from asteroids in the outer solar system. Furthermore, it demonstrates the breadth of the Thermo Fisher Scientific instrument portfolio for geoscience research.