More than 20 types of amino acids were detected in samples of an asteroid brought to Earth in December of 2020, according to Japan's education ministry. The Japan Times reported that this detection is the first evidence that amino acids exist on asteroids in space and could hold the key to understanding how such vital organic molecules arrived on Earth.
The Hayabusa2 spacecraft collected the samples from an asteroid called Ryugu. JAXA (Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency) landed a probe on Ryugu - which is nearly 200 million miles from Earth - back in 2019 and collected samples from the asteroid's surface and subsurface.
A carbon-rich fragment of a larger asteroid that formed from the same gas and dust that gave way to our solar system, Ryugu's surface offers scientists a look at what material was floating around over 4 billion years ago. Hisayoshi Yurimoto, a geoscientist at Hokkaido University in Japan and member of the Hayabusa2 team, presented at the Lunar and Planetary Science Conference back in March. He described the asteroid as the "most primitive material in the solar system we have ever studied."
Amino acids are the building blocks of proteins, which makes them essential molecules for life. Ancient rocks on Earth have given us evidence that molecules similar to those found on Ryugu arrived here billions of years ago. It's possible that they first arrived via impacts from comets and asteroids.
The reason that discovering these molecules on Ryugu is so important is because when asteroids impact Earth, they are almost immediately contaminated with terrestrial matter, which makes it difficult for scientists to discern what was on the rock before it arrived versus after. By comparing Ryugu's samples to ones collected from Bennu, an asteroid NASA visited in 2020, scientists hope they will gain a better understanding of all the various chemicals and particles in the universe and how life arose from it all.
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