"Like a fly in amber:" two meteorites with ingredients for life

Mindy Sparks
January 12, 2018

A detailed analysis of the chemical makeup within tiny blue and purple salt crystals sampled from the two meteorites, known as Monahans and Zag, found a mix of complex organic compounds such as hydrocarbons and amino acids, according to the study published Wednesday in the USA journal Science Advances. The scientists think the meteorites originated from asteroids like Ceres, the largest object in the asteroid belt and considered potentially habitable, and Hebe, another relatively large asteroid, which might be close enough to exchange materials the way subway riders exchange germs. They are the initial meteorites discovered to incorporate liquid water and a combination of intricate organic compounds such as hydrocarbons and amino acids. These organic compounds make up an essential part of life on Earth.

Zag/Monahans meteorites and their salt (halite) crystals: (A) diagram showing the lithologies of the Zag and Monahans meteorites, their dark (carbonaceous) clasts, the salt crystals, and the fluid and solid inclusions within the salt crystals; (B) salt crystals hosted in the matrix regions of the Zag meteorite; the arrow marks one of the several salt crystals shown in this photo; (C) a microphotograph showing a salt crystal sampled from the Zag meteorite; (D) salt crystals sampled from the Zag meteorite contained in a pre-sterilized glass ampoule before hot-water extraction. The traces of water in both meteorites are direct evidence of the chemical makeup of a water-rich world in the outer solar system.

"Things are not as simple as we thought they were", co-author Queenie Chan, a planetary scientist at Open University in the United Kingdom, said in a press release. Now, after 20 long years, detailed analysis of the tiny blue and purple salt crystals that came from these meteorites has led scientists to the vital signs of life.

Monahans meteorite landed in Texas in March 1998 while the Zag meteorite on a mountain in the vicinity of Zag, Morocco in August of the same year.

If it turns out that life requires not just a habitable planet, but also a very specific visit from a space rock that's covered in organic juices, it's worth assuming that life is unfortunately not as common an occurrence as we might like to hope. Further, the study raises a possibility of encapsulating life or similar bio-molecules inside their salt-like crystals.

"There are also structural clues of an impact - perhaps by a small asteroid fragment impacting a larger asteroid".

Scientists believe that this discovery leads to the conclusion that the origin of life is possible elsewhere.

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