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Building blocks of life found in asteroids were formed in cold regions of space

An intriguing study, involving the meticulous analysis of organic compounds known as polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs), has recently challenged long-held beliefs about their cosmic origins.

These PAHs compounds, extracted from both the Ryugu asteroid and the Murchison meteorite, have revealed that certain PAHs are likely born in the frigid expanses of space, far from the warm vicinity of stars.

This revelation paves the way for new avenues in understanding extraterrestrial life and the chemical makeup of space objects.

Ubiquity of PAHs in asteroids and space

The WA-Organic and Isotope Geochemistry Centre (WA-OIGC) at Curtin University, represented as the only Australian contingent in an international research collaboration, played a pivotal role in this discovery.

Their unique approach involved simulating the creation of PAHs, the building blocks of life, through controlled burnings of various plants, a method that parallels the natural processes in space.

Professor Kliti Grice, a distinguished ARC Laureate Fellow and the director of WA-OIGC, emphasized the ubiquity and significance of PAHs.

“These organic compounds, composed of carbon and hydrogen, are not just common on Earth. They’re also present in celestial bodies such as asteroids and meteorites,” she explained.

The team’s innovative research involved comparing PAHs produced from Australian plants with those extracted from the Ryugu asteroid, brought back to Earth by a Japanese spacecraft in 2020, and the Murchison meteorite, which landed in Australia in 1969.

A tale of temperatures and origins

The key to their findings lay in the analysis of the bonds between light and heavy carbon isotopes within the PAHs. This analysis provided clues about the temperatures at which these compounds were formed.

“We discovered that smaller PAHs likely originated in the colder regions of outer space, while the larger ones were probably formed in warmer environments, such as near stars or within celestial bodies,” Professor Grice noted.

Dr. Alex Holman, a co-author of the study and also a member of WA-OIGC, highlighted the significance of understanding the isotopic composition of PAHs.

“Grasping the conditions and environments that gave birth to these molecules offers us a window into the history and chemistry of celestial bodies like asteroids and meteorites,” he said.

Building blocks of life on asteroids

This research not only unravels the mysteries of how organic compounds form beyond Earth but also identifies their origins in space.

“Our use of advanced techniques and innovative experiments has confirmed that select PAHs on asteroids can originate in the cold vastness of space,” Dr. Holman concluded.

In summary, the findings from this study are not just a scientific feat but a testament to the creativity and resourcefulness of researchers in probing the depths of space chemistry.

As we continue to explore and understand our universe, such discoveries remind us of the intricate and fascinating connections between Earth and the cosmic expanse.

The full study was published in the journal Science.


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