Asteroid dust collected by a Japanese spacecraft contains organic material showing some of the building blocks of life on Earth may have originated in space, scientists said Friday.
Pristine material from the asteroid Ryugu was returned to Earth in 2020 after a six-year mission to the celestial body some 300 million kilometers away.
But scientists are just beginning to unravel its mysteries in the first studies on small portions of the 5.4 grams (0.2 ounces) of dust and dark, tiny rocks.
In a paper published on Friday, a group of researchers led by Okayama University in western Japan said they had “discovered amino acids and other organic compounds that may provide clues to the origin of life on Earth.”
“The discovery of protein-forming amino acids is important because Ryugu was not exposed to Earth’s biosphere like meteorites, and thus their detection proves that at least some of the building blocks of life on Earth may have originated in space environments,” the statement reads Study.
The team said they found 23 different types of amino acids when examining the sample collected by Japan’s Hayabusa-2 probe in 2019.
The dust and rocks were kicked up as the refrigerator-sized spacecraft fired an “impactor” at the asteroid.
“The Ryugu sample has the most primitive properties of any natural sample available to mankind, including meteorites,” the Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency (JAXA) said in a statement.
Some of the material is believed to have formed about five million years after the birth of the solar system and was not heated above 100 degrees Celsius (210 degrees Fahrenheit).
Another study published in the US journal Science states that the material “has a chemical composition more similar to the Sun’s photosphere than other natural samples.”
Kensei Kobayashi, an astrobiology expert and professor emeritus at Yokohama National University, welcomed the discovery.
“Scientists have wondered how organic matter – including amino acids – formed or where it came from, and the fact that amino acids were discovered in the sample provides reason to believe that amino acids were brought to Earth from space. ‘ he told AFP.
Another mainstream theory about the origin of amino acids is that they were formed in Earth’s primitive atmosphere, for example by lightning strikes after the Earth cooled.
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