Not only is there life beyond Earth, but researchers say it’s likely that we’ll find it on our own neighbors in the solar system.
What's in the solar system beyond Earth?
When it comes to the question of extraterrestrial life, we seem to be on track to finding definite answers instead of vague, open conclusions. At least, that’s what scientists have to say on the matter. There is still no incontrovertible evidence—for example, an actual undeniable specimen of extraterrestrial life—that life beyond the confines of our planet exists. However, scientists are optimistic that we’re taking steps in the right direction.
Sometimes, scientists need to dig for evidence and information on possible extraterrestrial life. Sometimes, however, serendipity strikes and evidence quite literally just falls from the sky. One example of such an instance occurred in 1998, when two meteorites named Monahans and Zag crashed to Earth. These two meteorites, scientists later learned, had tiny salt crystals that contained water and the basic ingredients for life.
A microscopic blue salt crystal [Photo by Queenie Chan/The Open University, U.K.]
Monahans and Zag were the first meteorites ever found to have both extraterrestrial liquid water as well as organic compounds. According to a new study, the water and compounds were found within miniscule pockets of bright blue and purple salt crystals that dotted the meteorites.
Tests also reveal the possible sources of the two meteorites, two of which were the brown dwarf Ceres and the asteroid Hebe. The salt crystals within the two meteorites were similar, but the meteorites did not come from the same source. This suggests that the two sources of the meteorites interacted at some point and shared materials.
The discovery of the salt crystals was like finding “a fly in amber," said David Kilcoyne, a scientist working at Berkeley Lab's Advanced Light Source (ALS), the facility that provided equipment for the meteorites’ x-rays. While the salt crystals aren’t exactly the best proof that there’s life elsewhere in the solar system, the presence of rich organic chemicals in the meteorites is like the presence of insects trapped in amber.
"This is really the first time we have found abundant organic matter also associated with liquid water that is really crucial to the origin of life and the origin of complex organic compounds in space," says Queenie Chan, lead author of the study.
A salt crystal embedded in rock [Photo by Queenie Chan/The Open University, U.K.]
According to the study’s findings, the water in the crystals dates back to the infancy of our solar system, around 4.5 billion years ago. "Everything leads to the conclusion that the origin of life is really possible elsewhere," Chan says. "There is a great range of organic compounds within these meteorites, including a very primitive type of organics that likely represent the early solar system's organic composition."
It’s also possible that the organic molecules came from “a water-rich, or previously water-rich parent body—an ocean world in the early solar system, possibly Ceres," says Yoko Kebukawa, one of the researchers. This increases the possibility that life may exist—or at least existed—in bodies like the moons Enceladus or Europa.
The researchers saved some of the larger salt crystals for future research, since they want to discover the origins of the water itself. Other meteorite samples also contain similarly preserved crystals that the researchers want to test.
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