Ingredients for life discovered for the first time outside Earth

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Japanese researchers have for the first time discovered 20 amino acids in samples returned from an asteroid.

Japanese researchers have for the first time discovered amino acids — key ingredients for life — in an asteroid flying in space. They identified 20 amino acids in the samples returned from the asteroid Ryugu by the Hyabusa2 mission.

The findings confirm the scientific claims of the asteroid that it contains traces of carbon and organic matter. The Japanese space agency, Jaxa, had high hopes of finding clues to how the materials are distributed in the solar system and are related to life on Earth.

Amino acids are molecules that combine to form proteins and are building blocks of life. These molecules are essential for living beings as they help in breaking down food, growth, repairing body tissues, and performing several other bodily functions. These can also be used as a source of energy by the body.

These amino acids have previously been detected in the asteroids that fell on Earth. However, they were barely quantified as they were lost during entry through Earth’s atmosphere that burns and creates plasma. The discovery of 20 of these key ingredients confirms the presence of organic material in these remnants from the creation of the solar system.

The shadow, center above, of the Hayabusa2 spacecraft after its successful touchdown on the asteroid Ryugu. (Photo: Jaxa)

“The Ryugu material is the most primitive material in the solar system we have ever studied. Ruygu is a CI chondrite asteroid, a type of stony carbon-rich asteroid with a chemical composition that is the most similar to that of the sun. These asteroids, rich in water and organic material, are a possible source of the seeds of life delivered to the nascent Earth billions of years ago,” Hisayoshi Yurimoto, a geoscience professor at Hokkaido University told space.com.

Asteroids, which orbit the sun but are much smaller than planets, are among the oldest objects in the solar system and therefore may help explain how Earth formed and evolved. The Hayabusa2 mission was launched with the sole purpose of finding answers to the source of the origins of planets in the solar system.

The Hayabusa2 was launched in 2014, touched down on Ryugu twice, despite its extremely rocky surface, and successfully collected data and samples during the 1.5 years after it arrived there in June 2018. In the first touchdown in February 2019, it collected surface dust samples. In July, it collected underground samples from the asteroid for the first time in space history after landing in a crater that it had earlier created by blasting the asteroid’s surface.

The spacecraft then began a journey back home, dropping the capsule containing the soil from the asteroid over Australia in December 2020. However, that was not the end of the mission for the probe.

After dropping the capsule, it returned to space and is heading to another distant small asteroid called 1998KY26 on a journey slated to take 10 years.

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