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Where did Earth’s water come from? This meteorite might hold the answer

<i>Jonathan E.Jackson/NHM Photo</i><br/>The meteorite landed in an English town in February 2021.
The Natural History Museum, Lond
Jonathan E.Jackson/NHM Photo
The meteorite landed in an English town in February 2021.

By Hafsa Khalil, CNN

If you’ve ever wondered where water on Earth comes from, new research on a meteorite which landed in a family’s front yard in England last year may have just the answer.

Researchers from London’s Natural History Museum and the University of Glasgow, in Scotland, studied a meteorite found in the town of Winchcombe, Gloucestershire, to discover it contained water similar to that found on Earth.

“It’s a crystal clear window into our early solar system,” Luke Daly, co-author of the study and a lecturer in planetary geoscience at the University of Glasgow, told CNN Thursday.

Published in the journal Science Advances on Wednesday, the study reveals that extraterrestrial rocks may have brought vital chemical components — such as water — to our planet billions of years ago, establishing the oceans and all life on Earth.

Approximately 71% of the Earth’s surface is covered in water, with oceans holding about 96.5% of all water, according to the US Geological Survey.

Imaging and chemical analysis of the Winchcombe meteorite — as it has become known — revealed it contains around 11% water and 2% carbon by weight, making it the first of its kind found in the UK.

The team, which measured the ratio of hydrogen isotopes in the water, found that it closely resembled the composition of water on Earth, according to a press release from the Natural History Museum.

Extracts from the rock also found extraterrestrial amino acids, making it the strongest evidence that water and organic material were delivered to the planet by asteroids like the one Winchcombe broke away from.

The meteorite was identified as a CM carbonaceous chondrite, a type of stony meteorite that contains a high composition of components that predate the solar system.

Recovered within 12 hours of its landing with the aid of the UK Fireball Alliance, an organization which aims to recover freshly-fallen meteorites in the UK, it had very little time to be altered by the Earth’s atmosphere.

“We know (this means) everything inside it is 100% extraterrestrial including the 11% water it contains,” Daly said.

“Most CM chondrites have ‘Earth-like’ water but these rocks alter and degrade within days (or) weeks of being on Earth, and so they could just be Earth-like because they have absorbed rain water or something,” he explained.

Natasha Almeida, curator of meteorites at the Natural History Museum and study co-author, said in a statement Wednesday the “incredibly fresh specimen will remain one of the most pristine meteorites in collections worldwide.”

Daly called the Winchcombe meteorite a “lucky” find. It was only the size of a basketball, so if it was traveling at a different speed or at a different angle, it would have all burnt up, he said, adding that it was a great collaboration of the UK cosmochemistry network who “came together to throw the kitchen sink at studying this rock.”

While this paper is the first of many publications that are in the works on the meteorite, Daly said it will keep them busy for years to come. “There are certainly many more stories and secrets held in this special stone,” he added.

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