Building Blocks of Life Were Found on an Asteroid in Space For The Very First Time

Scientists have discovered the building ingredients of life on an asteroid in space for the first time.

On the space rock Ryugu, which is more than 200 million miles (320 million kilometers) from Earth, Japanese researchers identified more than 20 amino acids.

Scientists studied materials taken from the near-Earth asteroid by the Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency's (JAXA) Hayabusa2 probe, which landed on Ryugu in 2018.

The spacecraft retrieved 0.2 ounce (5.4 grams) of material from the asteroid's surface and subsurface in 2019, stored it in an airtight container, and returned it to Earth on a precise course in 2019.

Ryugu is made up of several tiny boulders rather than a single huge boulder, and astronomers believe the asteroid's distinctive spinning top form is due to fast rotation.

Ryugu is a carbonaceous, or C-type, asteroid with a lot of carbon-rich organic materials on it, most of which came from the same nebula that gave birth to the Sun and the planets of the Solar System around 4.6 billion years ago. Water has also been found on the asteroid, according to previous sample research.

"The Ryugu material is the most primitive material in the Solar System we have ever studied," claimed Hisayoshi Yurimoto, a geoscience professor at Hokkaido University and leader of the Hayabusa2 mission's first chemical study team, at the Lunar and Planetary Science Conference in March.

The pitch-black asteroid samples, which barely reflect 2 to 3 percent of the light that touches them, have not been modified by interactions with Earth's environment, giving them a chemical makeup far closer to that of the early Solar System.

"We detected various prebiotic organic compounds in the samples, including proteinogenic amino acids, polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons similar to terrestrial petroleum, and various nitrogen compounds," Hiroshi Naraoka, a planetary scientist at Kyushu University and the leader of the team that examined the samples for organic matter, said at the conference.

"These prebiotic organic molecules can spread throughout the Solar System, potentially as interplanetary dust from the Ruygu surface by impact or other causes."

According to Japan's education ministry, sample analysis initially found 10 amino acid kinds, but the number has already risen to more than 20. Amino acids are the basic building blocks of all proteins and are required for life to survive on our planet.

Organic molecules from space were discovered in a group of 3.3 billion-year-old rocks discovered in South Africa, according to a 2019 study published in the journal Geochimica et Cosmochimica Acta, raising the possibility that some – if not all – of these life-building molecules first arrived on Earth on comets and asteroids. The Ryugu results add to the growing body of evidence that asteroids transport these chemicals.

"Proving amino acids exist in the subsurface of asteroids increases the likelihood that the compounds arrived on Earth from space," said Kensei Kobayashi, a Yokohama National University professor emeritus of astrobiology.

This suggests that amino acids might be present on other planets and natural satellites, implying that "life could have been born in more places in the Universe than previously thought," he said.

Ryugu samples are still being analyzed, and additional information about the asteroid's genesis and makeup will be accessible soon.

Ryugu isn't the only extraterrestrial body being studied. Another diamond-shaped asteroid called Bennu was sampled by NASA's OSIRIS-REx mission in 2021.

When the sample arrives on Earth in 2023, scientists may be able to deduce vital details about the development of the Solar System and its components, as well as how life originated from them, thanks to the presence of organic matter.