The most basic ingredients for life have been discovered in two ancient meteorites, some 20 years after they were discovered.
The two meteorites, Zag and Monahans, fell to Earth in 1998 and were of course analysed at the time.
What they found was simply that both meteorites did contain some liquid water, any further analysis however was limited due to the technology of the period.
“This was actually the first comprehensive analysis of the salt crystals on Zag and Monahans. They have been stored for almost 20 years and we have been waiting for the development of lab equipment powerful enough to analyse what is in each crystal at nanoscopic scales.” explains lead author Dr Queenie Chan.
With the samples having been stored on Earth for two decades, the scientists had to go to extraordinary lengths to make sure the two meteorites hadn’t been contaminated.
“We conducted the experiments in the cleanest laboratories in the world at the NASA Johnson Space Centre, which avoided any contamination from things such as dust in the air.” said Chan.
What they found was remarkable.
“The salt crystals, which show a similar colour to blue sapphire,” explains Chan. “Are essentially little packages full of organic compounds including amino acids – the building blocks of life.”
While the discovery doesn’t suggest that the meteorites ever contained life, it raises important questions about the likelihood of life developing elsewhere in the universe.
“We know that the Zag meteorite broke away from a particular asteroid. However, we believe the salt crystals are from another object in space – the largest asteroid in the asteroid belt, Ceres; it suggests that Ceres could be a water-rich world that is a suitable place for the formation of life.” said Chan.
Both meteorites that were found are believed to be 4.5 billion years old, roughly the same age as Earth. If an object as old as this can contain the same ingredients needed to start life it offers a tantalising glimpse of how life could begin in other solar systems and elsewhere in the galaxy.