Picture this: you’re playing basketball after school with your friends. Just as you’re about to make a three pointer, a streak of fire cuts across the sky and the object causing it lands just a few yards away, embedding itself in the blacktop. You rush over to the site of a small, smoldering crater, where a meteorite appears. And that meteorite is carrying biological material from another planet. This might sound like the opening scene to the next big sci-fi thriller. But it actually occurred in real life.
Two meteorites, one found outside of Morocco and the other in Texas, both in 1998, have now been analyzed and the results are enticing. An international collaboration of scientists at the Department of Energy’s Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory (Berkeley Lab) conducted the analysis. Their findings were published in the journal Science Advances.
These space rocks, which are thought to have circulated within our solar system’s asteroid belt for a billion years, contain organic compounds necessary for life. The meteorites carry within them hydrocarbons, amino acids, and other organic materials, as well as water. It’s a bit like a life starter kit.
These boys were playing basketball when a meteorite blasted into the blacktop just yards away from them. This occurred in Texas on March 22, 1998. After studying it closely, scientists say the meteorite contains traces of water and prebiotic elements. (Credit: Mark Bostick).
Researchers took a look at minute blue and purple salt crystals from inside the meteorites, each just a fraction of the width of a human hair. These were transported to a dust-controlled room and handled with tiny instruments which resemble metal dental picks. Next, the crystals were examined with an X-ray microscope. Scientists also employed a technique known as XANES: X-ray Absorption Near Edge Structure Spectroscopy. Lo’ and behold, traces of prebiotic compounds and water were trapped inside these crystals.
It’s possible they originate with Ceres–a dwarf planet which also happens to be the largest object in the asteroid belt. Ceres has volcanic activity similar to Enceladus, which strengthens the case for some kind of life taking shape underneath the surface of Saturn’s frozen moon.
Such volcanic activity could force ice and water jets to shoot out into space. The asteroid Hebe is another candidate. This is a common source of meteorites that fall onto Earth. Or the crystals may have originated in “a water-rich world in the outer solar system,” as scientists write in the study.
This is the first time a comprehensive exploration of the chemical makeup of meteorites has been conducted. The groundbreaking work is helping us better understand our early solar system and the composition of asteroids within it. Discovering such compounds after a long trek through space hints at a greater diversity of life in the universe than previously assumed.