February 4, 2023

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A piece of an asteroid eaten in space contains the most pure materials on Earth

A piece of an asteroid eaten in space contains the most pure materials on Earth

It arose in a bubble, pond, or other body of water with a temperature of about 37 degrees Celsius, somewhere on or in a piece of cosmic rock, when the solar system was only five million years old. Now, about four and a half billion years later, researchers have measured those minerals in a morsel of grains and dust from the distant asteroid Ryugu, a porous, compressed collection of debris currently located about 300 million kilometers from Earth.

After analysis, it appears that the researchers involved in the journal Sciences, that the sample is very similar to certain types of carbon-rich meteorites (for those in the know: CI-type chondrites), chunks of rock that smashed into Earth in the past. The only difference: Since those meteorites were altered by their residence on our planet, due to rain, sun, and wind, the material the researchers are now studying is completely untouched.

batter bowl

This officially makes the monster the most primitive cosmic substance on Earth. Not surprisingly, because asteroids like Ryugu are the remaining lumps of the mixing bowl where Mother Nature used to knead the Earth and other planets. Thus, revealing its composition provides a direct link to the history of the solar system.

A “very promising” result, says astronomer Lukas Ellerbrück, who has in the past analyzed discoveries from the European Rosetta mission, among other things. And he visited another asteroid far away, where the probe immediately analyzed its chemical composition. Given the potential for more extensive analyzes on Earth, subsequent missions — including Hayabusa 2 and the NASA Osiris-Rex mission — expected to deliver their collection next year, decided to bring the materials here.

In this article, the researchers describe, among other things, that the sample, even more so than the CI chondrite, resembles the photosphere of the Sun, the deepest layer of the atmosphere of our parent star. “This makes the connection to solar history immediately tangible,” says Ellerbroek.

Asteroid Ryugu, photographed by the Japanese probe Hayabusa 2, at an altitude of six kilometers.JAXA’s photo

The basic building blocks of life

He expects more exciting analyzes of the sample in the near future. For example, researchers participating in the Hayabusu mission briefly reported the discovery of amino acids, an important building block for life, during a scientific conference in March. The new article in Sciences However, he does not give any details about this.

According to Ellerbroek, it is clear that researchers will also report such discoveries more widely in the future. “We know that the building blocks of life, including amino acids, were probably present very early in the history of the solar system,” he says.

So missions like Hayabusa 2 in particular could help reveal the exact timeline of the solar system’s chemical evolution. For example, the question remains open whether all the basic components of life after the formation of our planet actually existed here, or whether they originated from asteroids such as Ryugu. They could then bring the building blocks here by influences, as the famous astronomer Carl Sagan suggested in the 1990s. “This would be a magical discovery, if life really came from space,” says Ellerbruck. “But it is still too early for such conclusions.”

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