Rare 4.6 billion year old meteorite found in England

A rare meteorite, about 4.6 billion years old — straight from the early days of the solar system — was found in the horseshoe mark of a horse in Gloucestershire, England, in March of this year, Loughborough University, also in UK. The finding was made by Derek Robson, a local resident, in conjunction with the director of astrochemistry at the astrophysical research entity East Anglian Astrophysical Research Organization (EAARO).

Electron microscopy image reveals details of the ancient meteorite’s structure.Source:  The Loughborough Materials Characterization Center

Space rock is a carbonaceous chondrite, a rare category that represents at most 5% of meteorites found on Earth. These meteorites come from the asteroid belt between Mars and Jupiter and formed early in the solar system’s history. They often contain organic compounds or carbon carriers, including the amino acids that constitute the basic building blocks of life, which begs the question: Do these meteorites contain clues to the emergence of life in the solar system?

What makes this meteorite special?

Unlike other space debris, this rock has not experienced the violent collisions and intense heat involved in creating the solar system’s planets and moons. This meteorite “has been out there, beyond Mars, untouched, since before any of the planets were created,” said Shaun Fowler, a microscopist at Loughborough University, in a press release. “This means that we have the rare opportunity to examine a piece of our primordial past,” he added.

The meteorite is small, charcoal-colored, and quite fragile—like a piece of crumbling concrete. It is composed primarily of minerals such as olivine, phyllosilicates, and round grains called chondrules — partially fused “beads” that were incorporated into the asteroid when it formed.

“But its composition is unlike anything you’d find here on Earth and potentially unlike any other meteorite we’ve encountered — possibly containing some unknown chemical or physical structure never seen before in other recorded meteorite samples,” Fowler said.

Discoveries about the emergence of life

Researchers at Loughborough University and EAARO are using electron microscopy to study the meteorite’s surface down to the nanometer (one billionth of a meter). The meteorite is also being analyzed with other techniques, such as vibrational spectroscopy and X-ray diffraction, dipping the structure of minerals in the meteorite in chemicals to determine their structure and polymorphism, crystallinity and molecular interactions.

If the team can confirm the presence of amino acids in the sample, the findings could reveal new information about how the solar system’s early geochemistry prepared the ground for life. But meteorite examination is still in the early stages. “At this stage, we’ve learned a lot about it, but we’ve barely touched the surface,” said Sandie Dann, a chemist at Loughborough University, in the same press release.

She continued: “It’s a scientific fairy tale. First your friend tracks a meteorite, then he finds it, and then he gives you some of this extraterrestrial material for you to analyze. There is enormous potential for us to learn about ourselves and our solar system — it’s a project incredible to be a part of”.

Jason Williams, Director of EAARO, added: “One of the main goals of EAARO is to open the doors of science and technology to those who may not have the opportunity. Derek and I feel that our new discovery could help us further these goals by opening up research opportunities in meteoritic science”. He hopes to continue to excite and inspire people of all ages, promoting and encouraging spatial research to a wider community.

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