Scientists have discovered water and organic material on an asteroid for the first time in history.
Back in 2003, the Japanese Aerospace Exploration Agency launched its first Hayabusa mission to collect dust samples from Itokawa, an asteroid then-said to be around a billion miles away. After landing on it in 2005, it endured delays and didn’t return to Earth until 2011.
However, 10 years later, the findings of the probe’s expedition are coming to light with eye-widening results: for the first time ever, researchers have found water and organic material on an asteroid.
The research, published with the title ‘Organic matter and water from asteroid Itokawa’ in the Scientific Reports journal, was based upon a single grain of asteroid dust from Itokawa.
While it’s tempting to jump to the conclusion that alien life can grow on asteroids, the water and organic material didn’t come from another world – it came from within the space rock itself.
Scientists from Royal Holloway, University of London, believe the asteroid had actually been evolving for billions of years. ‘Understanding the true nature of extra-terrestrial water and organic matter that were present at the birth of our solar system, and their subsequent evolution, necessitates the study of pristine astromaterials,’ the study notes.
It’s an amazing discovery, considering the conditions the asteroid had to endure, from volatile temperatures in outer space, to shattering, to dehydration. However, it’s believed the Itokawa was capable of reforming and rehydrating with material it picked up along the way.
As per The Independent, Dr. Queenie Chan from the Department of Earth Sciences at Royal Holloway said in a statement: ‘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.’
She continued: ‘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.’
From these findings, researchers hope it’ll help build upon further studies of other asteroid samples. For example, the Hayabusa2 mission concluded in 2020, with a probe returning with pieces of the Ryugu asteroid. One piece was only 38cm wide.
Chan said: ‘The organic matter that has been heated indicates that the asteroid had been heated to over 600C 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.’
She added: ‘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.’
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