"This organic matter might be the small seeds of life once delivered from space to Earth."

Cometary Gates

Researchers have discovered "cometary organic matter" while studying samples from Ryugu, a near-Earth asteroid that was visited by Japan's Hayabusa 2 spacecraft in 2018.

The mission returned samples to Earth in December 2020, giving scientists potentially invaluable insights into the origins of life on Earth, which some researchers now believe may have been seeded by ancient asteroid impacts.

Now, teams studying the samples have concluded that the sample's surfaces likely do contain organic molecules, bolstering that provocative theory.

"We propose that the carbonaceous materials formed from cometary organic matter via the evaporation of volatiles, such as nitrogen and oxygen, during the impact-induced heating," said Tohoku University Graduate School of Science assistant professor and coauthor Megumi Matsumoto in a statement about the research. "This suggests that cometary matter was transported to the near-Earth region from the outer solar system."

"This organic matter might be the small seeds of life once delivered from space to Earth," he added.

Melt Splashes

As detailed in a paper published in the journal Science Advances, Matsumoto's team found five to 20-micrometer-wide "melt splashes" in the Ryugu samples, which they believe were formed when cometary dust rained down on the atmosphere-less space rock. Within these splashes, they found "carbonaceous materials" that resemble "primitive organic matter."

"The chemical compositions of the melt splashes suggest that Ryugu's hydrous silicates mixed with cometary dust," Matsumoto said.

It's an exciting finding that echoes research at NASA, where scientists are currently poring over asteroid Bennu samples collected by its OSIRIS-REx spacecraft.

In an October announcement, the space agency claimed it had discovered the "building blocks of life on Earth" in preliminary samples taken from outside of the spacecraft's sample collection instrument.

However, researchers still have a long way to go until they might conclusively declare that life on Earth came about thanks to organic matter from space. But given the latest results, they're right to be excited.

More on the discovery: Japanese Asteroid Samples Contain the Building Blocks for Life

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