Meteorites that landed in 1998 contain ingredients necessary for life

Both may have a common origin, possibly dwarf planet Ceres.
By Laurel Kornfeld | Jan 15, 2018
Two meteorites that landed separately on Earth in 1998 are the first ever found to contain the ingredients necessary for life, liquid water and a mix of organic compounds including amino acids and hydrocarbons.

Both meteorites contain blue and purple salt crystals, whose chemical makeup was studied via X-ray experiments conducted at the Department of Energy's Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory (Berkeley Lab).

This first ever comprehensive chemical analysis of organic chemicals and liquid water in meteorites found the two objects to likely have a common parent body, possibly the dwarf planet Ceres, located in the belt of objects between Mars and Jupiter, or the asteroid Hebe, which is also located in that belt and is the origin of many meteorites that land on Earth.

The meteorites likely spent several billion years traversing the asteroid belt before somehow being perturbed into an Earth-bound trajectory.

One landed in Texas in March 1998 while the other touched down in Morocco in August of that year. Based on the similarities of the crystals inside them, scientists suspect they may have crossed each other's paths and possibly mixed their materials before landing on Earth.

Analysis of the meteorites, which are currently preserved at NASA's Johnson Space Center in Texas, showed signs of an impact, possibly caused by a small asteroid fragment having hit a larger asteroid.

The tiny salt crystals that contain traces of both liquid water and organic chemicals have widths just a fraction of a human hair.

Queenie Chan of The Open University in the UK reported the crystals were collected in a dust-controlled room and studied with a variety of state-of-the-art techniques.

Among the chemicals found in the crystals are oxygen, carbon, and nitrogen.

"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," Chan emphasized.

"We're looking at the organic ingredients that can lead to the origin of life."

Scientists are still uncertain as to how organic matter is transferred from one object to another in space. These particular meteorites are believed to be about 4.5 billion years old, dating back to the beginning of the solar system.

Salt crystals within them could have trapped either biomolecules or even primitive life within them, Chan speculated.

Additional X-ray testing conducted by two Japanese scientists at Berkeley Lab found the meteorites' organic matter to be similar to that found in primitive meteorites but with higher levels of oxygen.

"Combined with other evidence, the results support the idea that the organic matter originated from a water-rich or previously water-rich parent body--an ocean world in the early solar system, possibly Ceres," note Yoko Kebukawa of Yokohama National University in Japan and Aiko Nakato of Kyoto University.

Findings of the study have been published in the journal Science Advances.

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