Scientists have discovered unexpected ingredients for life — organic molecules never seen before in meteorites — inside a chunk of space rock that fell to Earth over California last year.
The discovery comes from an analysis of the so-called Sutter’s Mill meteorite, which lit up the California night sky with a dazzling fireball in April 2012. Meteorite fragments from the event may shed light on the primordial ooze that helped give rise to life on Earth.
Meteors that streak across Earth’s sky mostly are fragments of the asteroids that lie between Mars and Jupiter. Meteorites can be rich in organic compounds, including some found among life on Earth.
The organic chemicals in meteorites can get extracted with the aid of solvents. Speculation regarding the origin of life is based on the notion that it arose from a “prebiotic” soup of organic molecules, perhaps delivered in part by meteorites. Initially, fragments of the Sutter’s Mill meteorite apparently possessed fewer dissolvable organic compounds left after solvent extraction compared to other similar meteorites.
However, the researchers tried dissolving the fragments in conditions mimicking hydrothermal vents on Earth, the environment often seen in the early Earth that life might have arisen within. Upon such treatment, the rocks released organic molecules not previously detected in similar meteorites. The findings that suggest there are far more organic materials available via meteorite for planetary environments than scientists assumed.