In 1998, a pair of meteorites said to be about 4.5-billion-years-old crashed into our planet, landing in opposite parts of the world months apart from each other. And it took two decades before scientists discovered that the meteorites have the so-called “ingredients” for the recipe of life, as documented in a new study.
In a study published earlier this week in the journal, Science Advances, a team of researchers revealed the surprising findings from the analysis of two meteorites that may have been a part of our solar system’s asteroid belt for more than 4 billion years before making their way to Earth. According to a report from CNN, the first meteorite was found in Texas in March, 1998, and was followed by another, which landed in August of that year near Morocco. The meteorites, which were codenamed Monahans and Zag, are said to be the first of their kind to have several ingredients for life present, including liquid water, hydrocarbons, amino acids, and various organic compounds.
While both meteorites appear to have similar features, particularly bluish salt crystals, these crystals weren’t always included in the objects’ makeup. The researchers believe that they originated from water and ice that erupted from volcanoes, which is similar to what takes place in our solar system’s ocean worlds. It was also found that the objects might have crossed paths with each other, well before they fell to Earth.
Study author Queenie Chan, a postdoctorate research associate at the United Kingdom’s Open University, believes that the organic matter found in the meteorites may have come from one of these ocean worlds, specifically the brown dwarf planet Ceres.
“Our coordinated organic analysis of the salt crystals suggest that the organic matter originated from a water-rich, or previously water-rich parent body,” she commented.
Aside from Ceres, which is the largest known object in our asteroid belt, CNN pointed out that the asteroid Hebe is another possible source for the Monahans and Zag meteorites, as it has been suspected to be the source of a number of other meteorites that had previously crashed to Earth.
Although it was easy to obtain samples from the Zag and Monahans meteorites, as they were both kept at NASA’s Johnson Space Center, studying the objects was a different story. As explained by Newsweek, the scientists meticulously analyzed the samples, using a number of intricate processes to ensure that they didn’t get contaminated. Amino acids, which are the building blocks of proteins, were evident in the Zag sample, while the salt crystals from the Monahans sample were found to have carbon, nitrogen, and oxygen, three elements that are well known for being among the many ingredients for life.
While the scientists were able to find many key ingredients for life in the meteorites, the findings are not to be confused as a sign that there is absolutely some form of alien life beyond our planet. But they could offer some guidance to researchers hoping to learn more about the early days of objects like Jupiter’s moon, Europa, and Saturn’s moon, Enceladus, which have both been suspected to have features and chemistries capable of sustaining some form of life.
“Our finding that the meteorites contain a wide diversity of organic compounds is exciting, but what made me jump up and down was that we were able to investigate the soluble – such as amino acids, the building blocks of life – and insoluble organic compounds contained within the tiny salt crystals,” said Chan, as quoted by CNN.