Two wayward space rocks, which separately crashed to Earth in 1998 after circulating in our solar system's asteroid belt for billions of years, share something else in common: the ingredients for life. They are the first meteorites found to contain both liquid water and a mix of complex organic compounds such as hydrocarbons and amino acids.
A detailed study of the chemical makeup within tiny blue and purple salt crystals sampled from these meteorites, which included results from X-ray experiments at the Department of Energy's Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory (Berkeley Lab), also found evidence for the pair's past intermingling and likely parents. These include Ceres, a brown dwarf planet that is the largest object in the asteroid belt, and the asteroid Hebe, a major source of meteorites that fall on Earth.
The study, published Jan. 10 in the journal Science Advances, provides the first comprehensive chemical exploration of organic matter and liquid water in salt crystals found in Earth-impacting meteorites. The study treads new ground in the narrative of our solar system's early history and asteroid geology while surfacing exciting possibilities for the existence of life elsewhere in Earth's neighborhood.
"It's like a fly in amber," said David Kilcoyne, a scientist at Berkeley Lab's Advanced Light Source (ALS), which provided X-rays that were used to scan the samples' organic chemical components, including carbon, oxygen, and nitrogen. Kilcoyne was part of the international research team that prepared the study.