Scientists have discovered water and organic matter in a grain of dust from asteroid Itokawa, brought to Earth by the Hayabusa-1 mission in 2010. Credit: JAXA

Water and Organic Matter Found on Asteroid Leaves Experts Stumped

A discovery that could re-write the history of life on planet Earth.

In 2005, the Japanese probe Hayabusa visited the near-Earth asteroid Itokawa and collected samples of its material in an airtight capsule. In 2010, it was delivered to Earth, and although very few samples were found inside, they allowed for the first time to directly study the mineralogy and chemistry of an “untouched” asteroid in space.

On the basis of the data obtained, scientists have published dozens of articles, and it is all the more surprising that until recently, no one paid attention to one feature of the structure of asteroid dust grains – it contains water and organic material.

Scientists discovered water and organic matter on an asteroid for the first time in history

Due to the limited amount of asteroid material, scientists were able to study only a single grain of dust but it was enough for an absolute breakthrough discovery. For the first time in history, water and organic matter were discovered on the surface of an asteroid.

According to scientists, this is one of those rare discoveries that have the potential to re-write history and science and it is not simply because we have not found water and organic matter on an asteroid in the past. It is because the evolution pathway is similar to how life evolved on Earth in the past.

Circled in red is the miniature grain of dust from asteroid Itokawa that was used for this study. Credit: ISAS-JAXA
Circled in red is the miniature grain of dust from asteroid Itokawa that was used for this study. Credit: ISAS-JAXA

In normal cases, experts would assume that these materials originate from a different body and came to be on asteroid Itokawa through a collision in the distant past. In this case, however, scientists have found that the water and organic matter evolved chemically on the asteroid itself, which is what makes this discovery so significant.

Upon studying the single grain of soil from Asteroid Itokawa, scientists found both unheated and heater organic matter which confirms that the celestial body has gone through different extreme conditions.

In the past, science had focused on a different type of asteroids when it came to the history of life on planet Earth. Those are the carbon-rich C-type asteroids which, however, do not come to Earth as often. Asteroid Itokawa is an S-type asteroid, one of the most common types to fall on Earth, and this discovery proves that experts should focus their attention and work in a new direction.

Future asteroid material studies

It is unfortunate that Hayabusa-1 was unable to return a larger amount of samples from asteroid Itokawa but Hayabusa-2 definitely made up for the unexpected failure of its predecessor.

Japan’s reversible Hayabusa 2 space expedition, which returned to Earth in December with samples from the asteroid Ryugu, is already making intriguing discoveries. Last month, it was revealed that in the distant past, the asteroid was exposed to high temperatures, which can not be explained only by the heating of the Sun.

Scientists from the Japanese Space Agency have found that both the surface of Ryugu and its interior have been heated to 300 degrees C. The subsoil cannot be heated by our star alone, so researchers suggest that billions of years ago the asteroid collided. with another celestial body or while being part of a larger planetoid it received heat from it.

Researchers will look for traces of organic matter in the collected samples, which could give information about exactly how life came into being. With this said, the latest discovery of water and organic matter from asteroid Itokawa should influence scientists for a more comprehensive analysis on the soil from Ryugu as well. Time will pass but we have every reason to believe that science may soon find a new explanation for the evolution of life on Earth based on the studies of celestial bodies like the two asteroids.


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Sources:

Chan, Q., Stephant, A., Franchi, I., Zhao, X., Brunetto, R., Kebukawa, Y., . . . Grady, M. (2021, March 04). Organic matter and water from asteroid Itokawa.
Morrison, R. (2021, March 04). Water and organic MATERIALS essential for life on earth are found on the surface of an asteroid.
Roberts, L. (2021, March 04). Asteroid holds water and organic matter essential for life, first ever sample shows.
Smith, A. (2021, March 04). Scientists shocked at water and organic material found on asteroid.

Written by Vladislav Tchakarov

Hello, my name is Vladislav and I am glad to have you here on Curiosmos. My experience as a freelance writer began in 2018 but I have been part of the Curiosmos family since mid-2020. As a history student, I have a strong passion for history and science, and the opportunity to research and write in this field on a daily basis is a dream come true.

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