Japanese researchers have revealed that over 20 kinds of amino acids have been detected in asteroid samples brought to Earth by the Hayabusa2 probe in late 2020, proving for the first time that organic compounds exist on asteroids in deep space.
Amino acids are a required component of proteins, which are a key component of all living things. The discovery could help prove that the necessary ingredients for life can be found abundantly in outer space.
Visiting a distant asteroid
More than 5.4 grams of surface material were returned to Earth by Hayabusa2 in December 2020 following a six-year mission to the Ryugu asteroid located over 300 million kilometers away.
Astronomers hoped to solve mysteries about the solar system’s origin and life by studying asteroid fragments. Samples from these fragments had previously been found to have organic material and water.
Research institutes across Japan, including the University of Tokyo and Hiroshima University, conducted a full-scale investigation of the sample in 2021.
Even though we don’t know how amino acids arrived on ancient Earth, one theory suggests they came from meteorites, as amino acids have been detected in a meteorite found on Earth. Alternatively, they may also have been attached to the surface of ancient Earth.
After impacting the atmosphere, meteorites burn up and are quickly contaminated with terrestrial microorganisms.
The Hayabusa2 mission was groundbreaking as it carried subsurface materials that were not weathered by sunlight or cosmic rays back to Earth, providing scientists with unprecedented alien material to work with.
Alien life, what are the odds?
Yokohama National University’s professor emeritus of astrobiology, Kensei Kobayashi, sees the discovery of multiple types of amino acids on an extraterrestrial body as a possible sign of life on other planets.
“Proving amino acids exist in the subsurface of asteroids increases the likelihood that the compounds arrived on Earth from space,” he said.
This means amino acids can likely be found on other planets and natural satellites, indicating the possibility of life existing more widely in the universe than previously thought, Kobayashi explained.
After traveling 3.2 billion km on an elliptical orbit around the Sun for more than three years, Hayabusa2 reached its stationary position above Ryugu in June 2018.
In the following year, the spacecraft touched down on the asteroid twice to collect the first-ever subsurface samples from an asteroid. The surface material collected from Ryugu is, according to experts, the most untouched alien material ever studied in the solar system.
An analysis of samples retrieved by Japan’s Hayabusa2 mission has shown that the asteroid Ryugu encompasses some of the most primal material studied in a laboratory on Earth, dating back only 5 million years after the birth of our star system.
In other words, the material that makes up the asteroidal Ryugu is older than the material that makes up the planets.
The results of the study are published in the June 9 issue of the journal Science.
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