Scientists Find Primordial Organic Matter in Two Meteorites

James Marshall
January 13, 2018

Scientists have discovered liquid water and organic compounds essential for life on two ancient meteorites that fell to Earth nearly 20 years ago.

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".

Queenie Chan, a planetary scientist and postdoctoral research associate at The Open University in the United Kingdom who was the study's lead author, said, "This is really the first time we have found abundant organic matter also associated with liquid water that is really crucial to the origin of life and the origin of complex organic compounds in space".

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. The crystals were around two millimeters in size and contained organic solids and water traces a mere fraction of the width of human hair. 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.

One possibility is that ice or water jets from volcanic activity on Ceres (similar to those on Enceladus) could have imbued these rocks with such a rich mix of compounds. These organic compounds make up an essential part of life on Earth.

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.

"Everything leads to the conclusion that the origin of life is really possible elsewhere".

In the meantime the affluent sediments of organic remains recuperated from the meteorites don't offer any evidence of life outside of Earth, Kilcoyne said that the meteorites' engulfment of rich chemistry is similar to the conservation of primordial insects in solidified sap droplets. The results revealed traces of water and other organic compounds like carbon, oxygen and nitrogen.

Kebukawa also used the same STXM technique to study samples at the Photon Factory, a research site in Japan.

Chan noted that there are some other well-preserved crystals from the meteorites that haven't yet been studied, and there are plans for follow-up studies to identify if any of those crystals may also contain water and complex organic molecules. The journal Science Advances carried the findings of this study which included a well-detailed chemical structure analysis of the organic matter present in the rocks.

They could potentially have contributed to life on any planet they landed on, according to scientists. Like most space rocks, these two would have been remnants from the formation of the Solar System, but their chemistry was more complex than most.

Other reports by Click Lancashire

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