Scientists Find Water and Organic Matter on An Asteroid For The First Time

The Hayabusa-1 findings have potentially massive implications for how life started on Earth.
Chris Young
Hayabusa at ItokawaJAXA/ISAS

Scientists discovered the presence of water and organic matter in a tiny sample from the asteroid 'Itowaka,' which was visited by the Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency’s (Jaxa) first Hayabusa mission in 2010.

The findings constitute the first time such materials were found on an asteroid, and set the groundwork for future research into asteroid samples.

As The Independent points out, researchers from Royal Holloway, University of London suggest the asteroid may have been evolving for billions of years by picking up materials as it traveled through space.

The study also showed that the most common type of asteroid to come to Earth, S-type asteroids, can contain the raw components essential to life.

The scientific community had previously focused on carbon-rich C-type asteroids as a potential source for life on Earth.

Hayabusa mission sets foundation for future findings

The Hayabusa missions are focused on a robotic spacecraft developed by JAXA to return samples from small near-Earth asteroids for detailed analysis on Earth. Itokawa was the target of the first mission in JAXA's series of asteroid sample retrievals.

Just last December, JAXA's Hayabusa-2 mission returned a larger sample of a separate asteroid, called Ryugu, into our atmosphere, before setting off

"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," Dr Queenie Chan from the Department of Earth Sciences at Royal Holloway, said in a statement.

"The organic matter that has been heated indicates that the asteroid had been heated to over 600 degrees celcius 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."

Dr. Chen says that the findings are "very exciting" as they reveal details about the evolution of asteroids, as well as the role the space rocks have played in the formation of the universe.

The researchers highlight the fact that, based on their findings, 'Itokawa's' evolution pathway is very similar to that of the prebiotic Earth.

They hope that their work will lay the foundations for more detailed future analysis of other samples retrieved from asteroids — researchers are already hard at work investigating Hayabusa-2's sample, which was retrieved in a "perfect state."

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