Two meteorites crashed to our planet in 1998 after billions of years in the asteroid belt. And they had something in common besides reaching Earth the same year: they were the first meteorites we’ve found to have both complex organic compounds like amino acids and hydrocarbons, and liquid water. They may have come from the asteroid Hebe and the dwarf planet Ceres.
Around 20 years after the two meteorites – Zag and Monahans – plummeted to Earth, landing in Texas and Morocco, laboratory equipment is powerful enough to scrutinize blue salt crystals on the meteorites, according to The Open University. The 4.5-billion-year-old meteorites contained what the university described as the building blocks for life: liquid water and complex organic compounds together. Scientist David Kilcoyne at Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory (Berkeley Lab) compared the discovery to a fly in amber for the encapsulation of rich chemistry, according to the laboratory.
The salt crystals have been preserved at NASA’s Johnson Space Center, with experiments performed in what Queenie Chan of the center and The Open University described in a statement as the cleanest laboratories on Earth. Avoiding contamination was crucial so scientists could determine what compounds originated from space. The crystals were around two millimeters in size and contained organic solids and water traces a mere fraction of the width of human hair.
The salt crystals could have come from Ceres, based on space observations and their organic chemistry – seeded by water- or ice-spewing volcanic activity, per the laboratory. Yokohama National University associate professor Yoko Kebukawa said, “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.”
Chan said, “Everything leads to the conclusion that the origin of life is really possible elsewhere.”
The journal Science Advances published the research this week. 13 scientists from institutions in the United States and Japan contributed.