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The Winchcombe meteorite helps write the history of water on Earth

The Winchcombe meteorite helps write the history of water on Earth

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An analysis of the composition of the water found in the “Winchcombe meteorite,” published Wednesday, shows that it has a composition very similar to that of Earth’s oceans. Enough evidence that water on Earth came there by meteorites?

A small rock discovered in 2021 in a private lane in the small town of Winkcombe in central England may hold the answer to the mystery of the origin of water on Earth.

It is, in fact, a meteorite fragment from the depths of space and time that is beginning to reveal its secrets in… The study was published Wednesday, November 16, in the journal Science Advance.

No ground pollution

The chemistry of water inWinchcombe meteorite” [c’est devenu son nom officiel, NDLR] It is very similar to what is found in our oceans on Earth. Thus, the results of the analyzes carried out provide a grind for supporters of the theory according to which meteorites were derived from asteroids that brought water to Earth at the beginning of its history, ”says Catherine Joy, one of the co-authors of the study and a specialist in the study of meteorites at the University of Manchester.

It is neither the first nor the last meteorite to fall to Earth containing water. About 60 thousand have been discovered, and “there are always scientists who analyze the water that is there,” confirms Jérôme Allion, cosmochemist and specialist in meteorites at the Institute of Mineralogy, Material Physics and Cosmic Chemistry of the National Committee for Scientific Research at the Sorbonne. .

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But findings are often taken with tweezers because “meteorites generally lie around the Earth for weeks, even months in the Earth before they are detected, which leaves them plenty of time to become polluted by the terrestrial environment,” specifies Luke Daly, co-author of Study Scientist and Planetary Science at the University of Glasgow.

This is not the case with this sample. It was discovered and collected less than 12 hours after it landed in the heart of the British hinterland. It is too short to cause significant fouling of this splinter, and “in addition, it did not even rain, which was not a frequent occurrence in England at that time,” says Katherine Joy.

Thus, all of the materials in this sample—including the water—came directly from space. More precisely, this meteorite would have separated from the asteroid belt around Jupiter and through 4.56 billion years to reach us. “It’s a snapshot of the origins of our solar system, and how celestial dust coalesced to form the first planets in the universe,” sums up Katherine Joy.

“As far as we know, this is the first witness to this time and place in the galaxy that contains water similar to what is found on Earth that we have been able to analyze,” enthuses Luke Daly. They have the same chemical signature, which means they could have come from the same place because part of the composition of water depends on the distance from the sun.

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Multiple stories of water

This first study of the “Winchcombe meteorite” suggests that our oceans are full of water that may have come from Jupiter’s asteroid belt or further (the asteroids there likely drifted in from regions beyond Jupiter). our solar system).

But these first analyzes are not enough to end the debate about the origin of water on Earth, “far from it,” as Luke Daly asserts. “This is an element that strengthens those who advocate the theory of water brought to Earth by asteroids, but does not close the door to other hypotheses,” adds Jerome Allion.

First of all, even if asteroids play a role, they may not be the only ones that have covered nearly 70% of the Earth’s surface with water. “One theory might say, for example, that grains of space dust contributed to the formation of the oceans,” Luke Daly notes. These are tiny particles floating in space that, upon contact with the solar wind, are charged with water. Early in our history, they would have swarmed our young land to deposit precious H2O.

“Another theory is that comets brought water to Earth,” says Katherine Joy. But for now, the ice on comets can only be studied remotely, using instruments such as telescopes. This is not enough to get a clear idea of ​​the validity of this alternative theory, and “what scientists want is that the mission can allow us to return a piece of the comet’s ice so that we can study in the laboratory to compare the composition of its water to that of our oceans,” continues the specialist from the University of Manchester.

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Finally, there may also have been water already on Earth from its very beginnings. “Observations show that under the surface of various planets, including ours, there is water that has the same chemical composition as in our oceans and which could have already been present during their formation,” explains Jerome Allion.

The secret of creating life

If the controversy surrounding the origin of water on Earth has infuriated scientists so much, it is “because it is a constituent element for the emergence of life on our planet,” as Luke Daly points out. Analysis of the Winchcombe meteorite indicates that life on Earth was possible thanks to water that may have come from far beyond Jupiter.

This thesis about meteorites providing the official waters of the galaxy also leads one to wonder why life appeared, until proven otherwise, only on Earth. Similar meteorites certainly did not fail to fall on other planets.

In fact, “the Winchcombe meteorite contains all the elements needed to create life on a planet,” admits Luke Daly. The whole question, then, is to find out what the Earth did so uniquely in order to transform the test to make the first organisms appear in this water.