After analyzing the chemical composition of two meteorites that fell to Earth in 1998, researchers have discovered that the rocks contain the building blocks of life itself. These are the first meteorites found to possess both water and a mix of complex organic compounds, including hydrocarbons and amino acids, which are needed to sustain life.
X-rays were performed to study the composition of tiny blue and purple salt crystals extracted from the rocks at the Department of Energy’s Berkeley Lab. The team also found evidence of the origins of the meteorites – the dwarf planet Ceres and the asteroid Hebe.
The study not only provides evidence of the possibility of life on other planets, but also provides the first comprehensive chemical breakdown of organic matter and liquid water found in meteorites that have crashed onto the Earth.
Study co-author David Kilcoyne compared the findings to the preservation of insects in amber. Queenie Chan is a planetary scientist at The Open University and lead author of the study.
“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,” said Chan. “We’re looking at the organic ingredients that can lead to the origin of life.”
In addition to their potential to trap and carry biomolecules, the crystals carried microscopic traces of water that are believed to date back to the beginning of the solar system 4.5 billion years ago.
Chan explained that the resemblance of the crystals found in the meteorites, which crashed into Texas and Morocco a few months apart in 1998, indicate that their asteroid hosts may have crossed paths and mixed materials.
There is also some evidence that supports the idea of a collision, perhaps by a small asteroid fragment impacting a larger asteroid. This means that it is possible that organic matter is being passed from one host to another in space.
“Things are not as simple as we thought they were,” said Chan. “Everything leads to the conclusion that the origin of life is really possible elsewhere. 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.”
The study is published in the journal Science Advances.