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Solar System samples touch down in Leicester

The bright flash over Winchcombe, Gloucestershire, caused by a meteorite entering Earth's atmosphere. Credit: Richard Fleet/UK Meteor Observation Network

Samples from other worlds will be examined by space scientists at the University of Leicester as they continue to study the building blocks of the Solar System.

Some of the first particles from asteroid Ryugu – returned by Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency (JAXA) probe Hayabusa2 in 2020 – and samples from the Winchcombe meteorite, which fell to Earth earlier this year, will be scrutinised by planetary scientists in the School of Physics and Astronomy.

Both Ryugu and the unknown body which produced the Winchcombe meteorite – so-called for the Gloucestershire town where it was found in February – are examples of carbonaceous chondrites, considered one of the most primitive forms of planetary material. However, they are extremely rare and make up less than 5% of meteorite falls on Earth.

John Bridges is a Professor of Planetary Science and Dr Leon Hicks is a planetary materials researcher at the University of Leicester. They have been involved in a number of sample-return missions, including JAXA’s first Hayabusa mission and NASA’s Stardust mission.

Professor Bridges said: “A key advantage of a sample-return mission such as Hayabusa2 is that it allows us to look at the properties of a known asteroid which we can observe from Earth, and compare to other samples in a lab setting.

“However, we have been incredibly lucky with the recent Winchcombe meteorite fall, as that is such a rare event.

“We can not only learn about the processes that led to the formation of asteroid Ryugu, but we will also learn more about similar samples in our meteorite collections.”

Scanning electron microscope image of the Winchcombe meteorite interior, taken at the University of Leicester’s Advanced Microscopy Centre. Initial analyses indicate the presence of both high temperature minerals and low temperature water-rock reactions ‘superimposed’ upon them.

Samples from the Winchcombe meteorite arrived at Leicester in June, with some of the first particles from asteroid Ryugu expected later this summer.

Researchers at the University’s Space Research Centre and Advanced Microscopy Centre use a range of techniques to study the origin of asteroids and comets and the evolution of Mars. Methods include scanning electron microscopes, transmission electron microscopes, and focused ion beam. The samples will also be taken by Hicks and Bridgesto the Diamond synchrotron facility in Harwell, Oxfordshire later this month for further analysis.

This work helps scientists better understand the processes taking place at the formation of the Solar System as well as the changes which these bodies have undergone in the past 4.5 million years, and informs how our Earth came to possess the resources required to sustain life.

Planetary scientists have previously examined high-profile samples from the near-Earth asteroid Itokawa (Hayabusa), the comet Wild 2 (Stardust) plus lunar rocks and soil returned to Earth by NASA’s Apollo Program.

Professor Bridges is also a participating scientist and ChemCam team member on the NASA Mars Science Laboratory mission and is a key collaborator on the ExoMars mission – a joint project between the European Space Agency (ESA) and Russia’s Roscosmos – which aims to land a Leicester-built instrument on the Red Planet in 2023.

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