Researchers in Japan, Europe, and the U.S. have now identified many carbon-based molecules in the Ryugu samples brought back to Earth by Japan’s Hayabusa-2 asteroid probe. From their paper, published in Science yesterday:
We identified numerous organic molecules in the Ryugu samples. Mass spectroscopy detected hundreds of thousands of ion signals, which we assigned to ~20,000 elementary compositions consisting of carbon, hydrogen, nitrogen, oxygen, and/or sulfur. Fifteen amino acids, including glycine, alanine, and α-aminobutyric acid, were identified. These were present as racemic mixtures (equal right- and left-handed abundances), consistent with an abiotic origin. Aliphatic amines (such as methylamine) and carboxylic acids (such as acetic acid) were also detected, likely retained on Ryugu as organic salts.
The presence of aromatic hydrocarbons, including alkylbenzenes, fluoranthene, and pyrene, implies hydrothermal processing on Ryugu’s parent body and/or presolar synthesis in the interstellar medium. Nitrogen-containing heterocyclic compounds were identified as their alkylated homologs, which could have been synthesized from simple aldehydes and ammonia. In situ analysis of a grain surface showed heterogeneous spatial distribution of alkylated homologs of nitrogen- and/or oxygen-containing compounds.
The large number of carbon-based molecules is not unlike data from similar carbonaceous chondrite meteorites, though the differences appear to suggest Ryugu experienced chemical processes in connection with water during its lifetime.
Note for clarity: Organic molecules are not life. This is a term scientists use for any carbon-based molecule.
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