Water in asteroid dust offers clues to life on Earth

Japan's Hayabusa-2 probe collected rocks and dust from the asteroid Ryugu and returned that sample to Earth.

A surprise element was discovered in dust particles recovered by a Japanese space probe from an asteroid around 300 million kilometers from Earth: a drop of water.

The discovery provides further evidence in favor of the idea that life on Earth originated from space.

The results of the examination of 5.4 grams of rocks and dust collected by the Hayabusa-2 spacecraft from the asteroid Ryugu are in the most recent study that will be published.

Before the study's publication in Science on Friday, lead researcher Tomoki Nakamura of Tohoku University told reporters, "This drop of water has immense importance."

Many scientists think that water came from space, yet we were the first to find water on Ryugu, an asteroid close to Earth.

Hayabusa-2 was launched in 2014 on its mission to Ryugu and returned to Earth's orbit two years ago to deliver a capsule holding the sample.

The priceless payload has already provided a wealth of knowledge, including biological material suggesting that some amino acids, which are the basis of life on Earth, may have evolved in space.

According to the study released on Friday, the scientists discovered a drop of liquid in the Ryugu sample that was "carbonated water that contained salt and organic materials," Nakamura said.

This supports the idea that asteroid impacts on Earth may have "supplied water, which includes salt and organic stuff," according to Nakamura, who also suggested that asteroids like Ryugu or its bigger parent asteroid may have played a role.

We have found evidence that this (process) may have been closely related to, say, the genesis of the seas or biological stuff on Earth.

One of the biggest teams examining the Ryugu collection is Nakamura's team, which consists of roughly 150 researchers, including 30 from the United States, Britain, France, Italy, and China.

The sample has been distributed among several research teams to increase the likelihood of making new findings.

The discovery was praised by Kensei Kobayashi, a Yokohama National University emeritus and astrobiology expert who is not a member of the study team.

Given its fragility and the likelihood that it would be destroyed in space, he told AFP, "the fact that water was detected in the sample itself is astonishing."

"It does imply that the asteroid held water, and not just ice, but fluid as well, and that organic stuff may have been produced in that water."

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