"Like a fly in amber:" two meteorites with ingredients for life

Pat Wise
January 13, 2018

Dr Chan said researchers believe the salt in the halite crystals that became embedded in Zag and Mohanans may have originated in Ceres, a dwarf planet in the asteroid belt.

"What's even more incredible is that the salt crystals from both meteorites are believed to be from the largest asteroid in the asteroid belt, Ceres, which suggests that it could be a suitable place for the formation of life".

That makes them enticing for further study, so an worldwide team of scientists analyzed the organic compounds in 2-mm long salt crystals inside the two meteorites.

"It's like a fly in amber", added Dr. David Kilcoyne, a scientist at the Department of Energy's Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory. Kilcoyne was part of the global research team that prepared the study.

An global team, including scientists from the Open University (OU) in the United Kingdom and Nasa Johnson Space Centre in Texas, found amino acids - which form the basis of proteins, hydrocarbons - organic compounds made up of hydrogen and carbon, and liquid water - the most important ingredient required to support life, within the salt crystals.

It turns out that within the salt crystals on these meteors, there exists a bunch of the ingredients that are necessary to create life, including organic compounds such as amino acids.

The microscopic traces of water found in the fragments could date all the way back to the birth of our Solar System, 4.5 billion years ago, the team says.

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These boys were playing basketball when a meteorite burrowed into the asphalt just yards away from their game on March 22, 1998.

There are also structural clues of an impact-perhaps by a small asteroid fragment impacting a larger asteroid, Chan said. Now we know more about what makes them so special. The researchers theorized that the crystals may have been deposited on the rocks by plumes of ice and water shooting into space, like those seen on Saturn's moon Enceladus, or from ancient oceans on Ceres.

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

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.

Advanced Light Source (ALS)-X-ray beamline and a scanning transmission X-ray microscope were used to study the crystal. The results revealed traces of water and other organic compounds like carbon, oxygen and nitrogen.

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. "We're looking at the organic ingredients that can lead to the origin of life". The results were published in the journal Science Advances on Wednesday.

They could potentially have contributed to life on any planet they landed on, according to scientists.

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