The Herald

Sci­en­tists find wa­ter and com­pounds es­sen­tial for life on an­cient me­te­orites

- NILIMA MAR­SHALL Life in Space · Space Technology · Space · Biology · Spacecraft · Solar System · Science · Ecology · Space Flights · Milky Way Galaxy · United Kingdom · Lyndon B. Johnson Space Center · Texas · Centre · Comets and Asteroids · Monahans, TX · The Open University

SCI­EN­TISTS have found wa­ter and or ganic com­pounds es­sen­tial for life on two an­cient me­te­orites that fell to Earth al­most 20 years ago.

The re­search is based on the first ever com­pre­hen­sive anal­y­sis of halite (salt-con­tain­ing) crys­tals found within Zag and Mon­a­hans, two 4.5 bil­lion-year-old rocks be­lieved to have come from the as­ter­oid belt be­tween the or­bits of Mars and Jupiter.

The study, pub­lished in Science Ad­vances, ap­pears to sup­port data gath­ered in the re­cent years by Nasa’s Dawn space­craft that sug­gests build­ing blocks of life may be present on some of the neigh­bour­ing as­ter­oids, par­tic­u­larly Ceres, the largest ob­ject in the as­ter­oid belt.

An in­ter na­tional team, in­clud­ing sci­en­tists from the Open Univer­sity (OU) in the UK and Nasa John­son Space Cen­tre in Texas, found amino acids – which form the ba­sis of pro­teins, hy­dro­car­bons – or­ganic com­pounds made up of hy­dro­gen and car­bon, and liq­uid wa­ter – the most im­por­tant in­gre­di­ent re­quired to sup­port life, within the salt crys­tals.

The me­te­orites fell to Earth in 1998 but the tech­nol­ogy avail­able at that time did not have the ca­pa­bil­ity to de­tect traces of amino acids.

Us­ing a com­bi­na­tion high-sen­si­tiv­ity mass spec­trom­e­ters, which de­tect dif­fer­ent mol­e­cules based on their size, and NanoSIMS equip­ment, which uses beams of ions to study the chem­i­cal com­po­si­tion of or­ganic ma­te­ri­als, the sci­en­tists were able to de­ter­mine the chem­i­cal com­po­si­tion.

Lead aut hor Dr Quee­nie Chan, a post­doc­toral re­searcher at OU, 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.

“We con­ducted our ex­per­i­ments in one of the clean­est lab­o­ra­to­ries in the world at the Nasa John­son Space Cen­tre, which avoided any con­tam­i­na­tion from things such as dust in the air.”

T he team used Ra­man spec­troscopy, that uses light to de­tect the chem­i­cal com­po­si­tion of or­ganic ma­te­ri­als, to con­firm the pres­ence of wa­ter.

Dr Chan added: “Each salt crys­tal, about two mil­lime­tres and the c olour of a bl ue sap­phire, is a pack­age of or­ganic com­pounds and the nec­es­sary build­ing blocks of life.

“What’s even more in­cred­i­ble is that the salt crys­tals from both me­te­orites are be­lieved to be from Ceres, which sug­gests that it could be a suit­able place for the for­ma­tion of life.”

 ??  ?? One of the crys­tals found to con­tain wa­ter.
One of the crys­tals found to con­tain wa­ter.

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