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Extremely rare meteorite found in wake of spectacular U.K. fireball may contain the "building blocks of life"

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Late last month, a spectacular fireball lit up the night sky over the United Kingdom and Northern Europe. Now, locals are starting to recover leftover meteorite fragments — and scientists say they may contain the "building blocks of life."

An extremely rare meteorite — found on an unassuming driveway of a house in Gloucestershire — marks the first piece of space rock discovered in the U.K. in 30 years, the Natural History Museum of London said in a statement Tuesday. It will give researchers a peek into what the solar system looked like when it was forming, some 4.6 billion years ago.

They've nicknamed it the Winchcombe meteorite, for the town where it landed.

The rare find is the result of a fireball spotted on February 28, around 10 p.m., over the western part of the U.K. The bright flash lasted about six seconds, the museum said.

The museum is now analyzing fragments of the meteorite, which weighs just 10.6 ounces. The special type of meteorite is known as a carbonaceous chondrite.

"This is really exciting," museum researcher Sara Russell said in a statement. "There are about 65,000 known meteorites in the entire world, and of those only 51 of them are carbonaceous chondrites that have been seen to fall like this one." 

The fireball was seen over western England at around 22:00 local time on February 28, 2021, and lasted about six seconds.  UK Fireball Alliance

Researchers say the meteorite's relatively slow speed of about 8 miles per second may be to thank for the rock's survival.

"'It is almost mind-blowingly amazing, because we are working on the asteroid sample return space missions Hayabusa2 and OSIRIS-REx, and this material looks exactly like the material they are collecting," Russell said. "I am just speechless with excitement." 

The man who found the meteorite had missed the fireball's entry, and was surprised to wake up to a "black, sooty splatter mark" on his driveway. Researchers describe it as looking like coal, but feeling much softer and more fragile. 

The sample is in such good condition, it's essentially comparable to rock samples from the space missions.

"For somebody who didn't really have an idea what it actually was, the finder did a fantastic job in collecting it," Dr. Ashley King, a researcher at the museum, said in a statement. "He bagged most of it up really quickly on Monday morning, perhaps less than 12 hours after the actual event. He then kept finding bits in his garden over the next few days." 

The museum said that the rock likely holds soft clay minerals, suggesting it once contained frozen water ice. Carbonaceous chondrites are made up of a combination of minerals and organic compounds, including the building blocks of life — amino acids.

This type of meteorite stems from an asteroid that formed millions of years ago, when the planets in our solar system were forming. Scientists believe they hold precious information about our early solar system. 

The fragile Winchcombe meteorite, recovered after a fireball streaked across the U.K. on February 28, 2021.  The Trustees of the Natural History Museum

"Meteorites like this are relics from the early Solar System, which means they can tell us what the planets are made of," Russell said. "But we also we think that meteorites like this may have brought water to the Earth, providing the planet with its oceans."

A record number of people spotted and reported the fireball, and there were a plethora of doorbell camera footage, dashcam videos and social media moments to aid scientists in determining where the meteorite came from.

The U.K. Fireball Alliance determined the extraterrestrial rock zoomed to Earth from the outer regions of the asteroid belt — located between the orbits of Mars and Jupiter.

So much space rock has been recovered, that researchers can use the samples as a sort of test run for the types of experiments they hope to perform on meteorites returned from the recent space missions.

"There are so many things that just went right," Russell said. "I was a PhD student when the last UK meteorite fell and I have been waiting ever since. I have always daydreamed that there would be a carbonaceous chondrite, but you don't really expect that to happen at all. It is absolutely a dream come true."

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