Fireball meteorite may reveal origins of life on Earth

Alex Ventisei reports on the extraterrestrial compounds that may point towards how life started on Earth

Alex Ventisei
5th November 2020
A meteorite fragment which landed on a frozen lake in Michigan in 2018 has brought new evidence to one of the most fundamental human questions, “Where did we come from?”

It is estimated that about 17 meteors hit Earth every day. This sounds alarming, but the reality is that most meteors burn up in the earth’s atmosphere and never reach ground level.

If a rock from space survives the crash down through our atmosphere, it is called a meteorite. These are of crucial importance to geophysical scientists who study them in order to answer fundamental questions about life in the universe.

Covering more than 70% of our planet’s surface, most meteorites fall into our oceans, making them nearly impossible to recover. When meteorites fall on land, they are almost always contaminated by microbes from Earth’s soil.

The microbe sample contained within the 2018 fireball meteorite was "pristine" and completely uncontaminated

However, this is where the fireball meteorite which made its way to Earth’s crust in 2018 is different. It landed on a frozen lake in Michigan and was recovered quickly, so the sample of microbes contained within was “pristine” and completely uncontaminated.

Researchers led by Phillipp Heck at the Field Museum in Chicago, found 2600 organic compounds on the meteorite, which were mostly heavy, complex hydrocarbons. Hydrocarbons are essential to the formation of life as we know it here on Earth.

The theory of "meteorite hitchhiking" to explain the arrival of extraterrestrial compounds on Earth is not new

The theory that key ingredients for life on Earth arrived via "meteorite hitchhiking" is not new, but this new discovery lends unprecedented and strong evidence to that narrative.

Researchers used isotope dating techniques to find that the asteroid which this meteorite split off from is about 4.5 billion years old. The meteorite’s split from it’s “parent body” would have taken place about 12 million years ago, meaning the life contained within this meteorite has had a long journey through the hostile environment of space to reach us at this point.

The find has been made possible by large scale collaboration, as lead researcher Phillipp Heck states, "This study is a demonstration of how we can work with specialists around the world to get most out of the small piece of raw, precious piece of rock."

The sample was analysed by 29 scientists from 24 institutions across the globe

The sample itself was analysed by 29 scientists from 24 institutions across the globe. Going by his official title of meteorite hunter, Robert Ward was aided by an array of weather satellites in collecting the sample within such a short time frame.

According to Heck, the methods used to locate this meteorite’s crash site could lead to more exciting discoveries in the future, “When a new meteorite falls onto a frozen lake, maybe even sometime this winter, we’ll be ready. And that next fall might be something we have never seen before.”

Featured Image: Pixabay

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