Wednesday, 19 September, 2018


Ingredients for life found in water-containing meteorites for 1st time

Dr. Queenie Hoi Shan Chan
Blue halite and tweezer tips for scale Dr. Queenie Hoi Shan Chan Blue halite and tweezer tips for scale
Kristine Garrett | 13 January, 2018, 16:24

In 1998, two space rocks separately crashed to Earth after roaming around the solar system's asteroid belt for billions of years.

Study lead author, Dr Queenie Chan, a postdoctoral researcher at the UK's Open University, said: "We collected the tiny salt crystals from the meteorites and dissolved them in water so that we could extract the amino acids and separate any organic compounds to analyse them". Now, a comprehensive chemical analysis of the two meteorites suggests their organic matter could come from an ancient ocean world, giving them the potential to kickstart life wherever they land.

While the discovery does not conclude that life existed outside of Earth, the presence of organic matter in the salt crystals raises the possibility of trapping prehistoric life and biomolecules in the meteorites.

Zag/Monahans meteorites and their salt (halite) crystals: (A) diagram showing the lithologies of the Zag and Monahans meteorites, their dark (carbonaceous) clasts, the salt crystals, and the fluid and solid inclusions within the salt crystals; (B) salt crystals hosted in the matrix regions of the Zag meteorite; the arrow marks one of the several salt crystals shown in this photo; (C) a microphotograph showing a salt crystal sampled from the Zag meteorite; (D) salt crystals sampled from the Zag meteorite contained in a pre-sterilized glass ampoule before hot-water extraction.

The origin story of the meteors boils down to two places, the first being Ceres, which is a brown dwarf planet and the largest object found in the adjoining asteroid belt.

Experts first examined the rocks when the hit Earth in the USA state of Texas and Morocco in 1998.

But how did the complex suite of organic compounds landed on the space rocks? Upon close observation, scientists found traces of liquid water that dated to a time that was the initial stage of our solar system which is 4.5 billion years old.

The in-depth analysis of the millimeter-sized salt crystals from the meteorites took time to complete because scientists needed a highly-sensitive instrument to study the crystals of amino acids at nanoscopic scales. The rocks had been preserved at NASA's Johnson Space Center, and fragments were carefully removed and then tested with an X-ray beamline and microscope, as well as other chemical experiments. The results were published in the journal Science Advances on Wednesday.

Dr Chan added: 'We believe that the salt may have originated in Ceres or some other carbon-rich asteroid body, while the meteorites come from a different parent body - one that has been heated to 950°C (1750°F) so any trace of liquid water present in it would have gone.

"Everything leads to the conclusion that the origin of life is really possible elsewhere", Chan said. "There is a great range of organic compounds within these meteorites, including a very primitive type of organics that likely represent the early solar system's organic composition".

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