Dust particles found by a Japanese spacecraft on an asteroid 300 million kilometers from Earth contain a surprising element: a drop of water. This discovery provides new support for the theory that life on Earth may have originated from space.
The results come in the latest study published after analyzing 5.4 grams of rock and dust collected by the Hayabusa-2 probe from the asteroid Ryugu. “This drop of water has great significance,” said Tomoki Nakamura, chief scientist at Tohoku University. “Many researchers already believe that water came from space, but we have already discovered water for the first time in a near-Earth asteroid.”
Launched in 2014 on its mission to Ryugu, Hayabusa-2 returned to orbit two years ago to deposit a capsule containing the monster. The precious payload has already provided many insights, including organic materials that show that some of the building blocks of life on Earth, amino acids, may have formed in space.
The team’s latest discovery was a drop of liquid in the Ryugu sample. “The drop is carbonated water with salt and organic matter in it,” Nakamura said. “This reinforces the theory that asteroids like Ryugu, or a larger asteroid, have supplied Earth with organic matter,” he said. “So we discovered evidence that this may be directly related to, for example, the formation of the oceans or organic matter on Earth.”
Nakamura’s team, consisting of about 150 researchers, including 30 from the United States, Britain, France, Italy and China, is the largest team to analyze the Ryugu sample. The sample is split among several scientific teams to maximize the chances of new discoveries.
Kensei Kobayashi, an astrobiologist at Yokohama National University who is not part of the research group, praised the discovery. “The fact that water was detected in the sample itself is surprising,” he said, given its fragility and potential for destruction in space. “It suggests that asteroids could contain water, in liquid form and not just in ice form. This allows organic matter to be transported through space.”
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