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Scientists shocked at water and organic material found on asteroid for the first time

The finding could rewrite our understanding of how the Earth developed

Adam Smith
Thursday 04 March 2021 13:53 GMT
Scientists shocked at water and organic material found on asteroid
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Scientists have found water and organic matter on the surface of an asteroid sample collected from the solar system - the first time that such material has been found on an asteroid.

The sample, which was only a single grain, came from asteroid ‘Itokawa’ by the Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency’s (Jaxa) first Hayabusa mission in 2010.

It shows both water and organic matter that originate not from an alien world, but from the asteroid itself. Researchers from Royal Holloway, University of London, suggest that the asteroid had been evolving for billions of years by incorporating the liquid and organic material in the same way Earth does.

The asteroid has weathered extreme heat, dehydration, and shattering, but managed to re-form and rehydrate using material it picked up. The study also shows that S-type asteroids - which are the most common ones that come to Earth - can contain the raw components of life.

This could rewrite our knowledge of the history of life on Earth, which previously focused on carbon-rich C-type asteroids.

“The Hayabusa mission was a robotic spacecraft developed by the Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency to return samples from a small near-Earth asteroid named Itokawa, for detailed analysis in laboratories on Earth”, Dr Queenie Chan from the Department of Earth Sciences at Royal Holloway, said in a statement.

“After being studied in great detail by an international team of researchers, our analysis of a single grain, nicknamed ‘Amazon’, has preserved both primitive (unheated) and processed (heated) organic matter within ten microns (a thousandth of a centimetre) of distance.

“The organic matter that has been heated indicates that the asteroid had been heated to over 600 degrees celcius in the past. The presence of unheated organic matter very close to it, means that the in fall of primitive organics arrived on the surface of Itokawa after the asteroid had cooled down.”

The scientists’ research, entitled “Organic matter and water from asteroid Itokawa”, were published in the journal Scientific Reports.

“These findings are really exciting as they reveal complex details of an asteroid’s history and how its evolution pathway is so similar to that of the prebiotic Earth”, Dr Chen added.

It is hoped that the analysis of this sample will set the groundwork for more detailed analysis of other samples. Jaxa’s Hayabusa2 mission returned pieces of the asteroid Ryugu last year, bringing back a piece of the celestial rock that was only 38 centimeters in diameter.

In 2019, samples from the asteroid Bennu revealed that it was in fact older than scientists previously thought, providing a new look on how the evolution of Solar System developed.

Observations of Bennu also confirmed the presence of widespread and abundant hydrated materials, as well as the surprising presence of large boulders.

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