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NASA Discovers Organic Molecules on Asteroid Ryugu, Bolstering Theory of Extraterrestrial Life Ingredients

This conceptual image illustrates the types of organic molecules found in the sample of asteroid Ryugu collected by Japan’s Hayabusa2 spacecraft. Organics are the building blocks of all known forms of terrestrial life and consist of a wide variety of compounds made of carbon combined with hydrogen, oxygen, nitrogen, sulfur, and other atoms. However, organic molecules can also be created by non-living processes, such as chemical reactions in asteroids. Credit: NASA/JAXA/Dan Gallagher

Asteroid Ryugu has a rich complement of organic molecules, according to a NASAEstablished in 1958, the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) is an independent agency of the United States Federal Government that succeeded the National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics (NACA). It is responsible for the civilian space program, as well as aeronautics and aerospace research. Its vision is "To discover and expand knowledge for the benefit of humanity." Its core values are "safety, integrity, teamwork, excellence, and inclusion." NASA conducts research, develops technology and launches missions to explore and study Earth, the solar system, and the universe beyond. It also works to advance the state of knowledge in a wide range of scientific fields, including Earth and space science, planetary science, astrophysics, and heliophysics, and it collaborates with private companies and international partners to achieve its goals.” data-gt-translate-attributes=”[{“attribute”:”data-cmtooltip”, “format”:”html”}]”>NASA and international team’s initial analysis of a sample from the asteroid’s surface delivered to Earth by Japan’s Hayabusa2 spacecraft. The discovery adds support to the idea that organic material from space contributed to the inventory of chemical components necessary for life.

Organic molecules are the building blocks of all known forms of terrestrial life and consist of a wide variety of compounds made of carbon combined with hydrogen, oxygen, nitrogen, sulfur, and other atoms. However, organic molecules can also be made by chemical reactions that don’t involve life, supporting the hypothesis that chemical reactions in asteroids can make some of life’s ingredients.

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NASA scientist Heather Graham receives a shipment of asteroid Ryugu samples from her colleagues at the Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency (JAXAFormed in 2003, the Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency (JAXA) was born through the merger of three institutions, namely the Institute of Space and Astronautical Science (ISAS), the National Aerospace Laboratory of Japan (NAL) and the National Space Development Agency of Japan (NASDA). JAXA performs various activities related to aerospace, from basic research in the aerospace field to development and utilization and is responsible for research, technology development, and launch of satellites into orbit, and is involved in advanced missions such as asteroid exploration and possible human exploration of the Moon.” data-gt-translate-attributes=”[{“attribute”:”data-cmtooltip”, “format”:”html”}]”>JAXA). Asteroid 162173 Ryugu is a carbon-rich pile of rubble, with an orbit that passes between Earth and MarsMars is the second smallest planet in our solar system and the fourth planet from the sun. It is a dusty, cold, desert world with a very thin atmosphere. Iron oxide is prevalent in Mars' surface resulting in its reddish color and its nickname "The Red Planet." Mars' name comes from the Roman god of war.” data-gt-translate-attributes=”[{“attribute”:”data-cmtooltip”, “format”:”html”}]”>Mars and a shape that resembles a kilometer-wide spinning top. Scientists think that Ryugu contains pristine organic material from the dawn of the solar system – and that it could hold clues to the formation and evolution of life. That’s why the Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency (JAXA) sent the Hayabusa2 spacecraft to study Ryugu and collect a sample, which it delivered to the Australian Outback in December 2020. Now, NASA scientist Heather Graham has received a box of Ryugu’s treasures from her JAXA colleagues, bringing a relic of the early solar system to a lab on Earth. Credit: NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center

The science of prebiotic chemistry attempts to discover the compounds and reactions that could have given rise to life, and among the prebiotic organics found in the sample were several kinds of amino acids<div class="cell text-container large-6 small-order-0 large-order-1">
<div class="text-wrapper"><br />Amino acids are a set of organic compounds used to build proteins. There are about 500 naturally occurring known amino acids, though only 20 appear in the genetic code. Proteins consist of one or more chains of amino acids called polypeptides. The sequence of the amino acid chain causes the polypeptide to fold into a shape that is biologically active. The amino acid sequences of proteins are encoded in the genes. Nine proteinogenic amino acids are called "essential" for humans because they cannot be produced from other compounds by the human body and so must be taken in as food.<br /></div>
</div>” data-gt-translate-attributes=”[{“attribute”:”data-cmtooltip”, “format”:”html”}]”>amino acids
. Certain amino acids are widely used by terrestrial life as a component to build proteins. Proteins are essential to life as they are used to make enzymes which speed up or regulate chemical reactions and to make structures from microscopic to large such as hair and muscles. The sample also contained many types of organics that form in the presence of liquid water, including aliphatic amines, carboxylic acids, polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons, and nitrogen-containing heterocyclic compounds.

“The presence of prebiotic molecules on the asteroid surface despite its harsh environment caused by solar heating and ultraviolet irradiation, as well as cosmic-ray irradiation under high-vacuum conditions, suggests that the uppermost surface grains of Ryugu have the potential to protect organic molecules,” said Hiroshi Naraoka of Kyushu University, Fukuoka, Japan. “These molecules can be transported throughout the solar system, potentially dispersing as interplanetary dust particles after being ejected from the uppermost layer of the asteroid by impacts or other causes.” Naraoka is lead author of a paper about this research published online on February 24 in the journal Science.

Solvent extractions of the Ryugu samples on a clean bench (ISO6, Class 100) inside a clean room (ISO5, Class 1000) performed by Hiroshi Naraoka at Kyushu University in Japan. Credit: JAXA

“So far, the amino acid results from Ryugu are mostly consistent with what has been seen in certain types of carbon-rich (carbonaceous) meteorites that have been exposed to the most water in space,” said Jason Dworkin of NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Maryland, a co-author of the paper.

“However, sugars and nucleobases (components of DNADNA, or deoxyribonucleic acid, is a molecule composed of two long strands of nucleotides that coil around each other to form a double helix. It is the hereditary material in humans and almost all other organisms that carries genetic instructions for development, functioning, growth, and reproduction. Nearly every cell in a person’s body has the same DNA. Most DNA is located in the cell nucleus (where it is called nuclear DNA), but a small amount of DNA can also be found in the mitochondria (where it is called mitochondrial DNA or mtDNA).” data-gt-translate-attributes=”[{“attribute”:”data-cmtooltip”, “format”:”html”}]”>DNA and RNARibonucleic acid (RNA) is a polymeric molecule similar to DNA that is essential in various biological roles in coding, decoding, regulation and expression of genes. Both are nucleic acids, but unlike DNA, RNA is single-stranded. An RNA strand has a backbone made of alternating sugar (ribose) and phosphate groups. Attached to each sugar is one of four bases—adenine (A), uracil (U), cytosine (C), or guanine (G). Different types of RNA exist in the cell: messenger RNA (mRNA), ribosomal RNA (rRNA), and transfer RNA (tRNA).” data-gt-translate-attributes=”[{“attribute”:”data-cmtooltip”, “format”:”html”}]”>RNA) which have been discovered in some carbon-rich meteorites, have not yet been identified in samples returned from Ryugu,” said Daniel Glavin of NASA Goddard, a co-author of the paper. “It is possible these compounds are present in asteroid Ryugu but are below our analytical detection limits given the relatively small sample mass available for study.”

Aggregate sample of the Ryugu grains (A0106) allocated to the Hayabusa2 Initial Analysis Soluble Organic Matter Team from the Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency for a variety of organic molecular analyses. Credit: JAXA

The Hayabusa2 spacecraft collected the samples on February 22, 2019, and delivered them to Earth on December 6, 2020. They were extracted in Japan in July 2021 and analyzed at Goddard in the Fall of 2021. A very small amount of sample (30 milligrams or about 0.001 ounce) was allocated for the international soluble organic analysis team. The sample was extracted (like tea) in many different solvents in Japan and analyzed in labs in Japan, Goddard, and Europe using a vast range of machines like those in a forensics lab.

This work is the first organic analysis of the Ryugu sample, and the samples will be studied for years. “We will do a direct comparison of the samples from Ryugu and the sample from asteroid Bennu when NASA’s OSIRIS-REx mission returns it to Earth in 2023,” said Dworkin. “OSIRIS-RExLaunched in 2016, the Origins, Spectral Interpretation, Resource Identification, Security-Regolith Explorer (OSIRIS-REx) spacecraft will help astronomers investigate how planets formed and how life began, as well as improve our understanding of near-Earth asteroids.” data-gt-translate-attributes=”[{“attribute”:”data-cmtooltip”, “format”:”html”}]”>OSIRIS-REx is expected to return much more sample mass from Bennu and will provide another important opportunity to look for trace organic building blocks of life in a carbon-rich asteroid.”

Reference: “Soluble organic molecules in samples of the carbonaceous asteroid (162173) Ryugu” by Hiroshi Naraoka, Yoshinori Takano, Jason P. Dworkin, Yasuhiro Oba, Kenji Hamase, Aogu Furusho, Nanako O. Ogawa, Minako Hashiguchi, Kazuhiko Fukushima, Dan Aoki, Philippe Schmitt-Kopplin, José C. Aponte, Eric T. Parker, Daniel P. Glavin, Hannah L. McLain, Jamie E. Elsila, Heather V. Graham, John M. Eiler, Francois-Regis Orthous-Daunay, Cédric Wolters, Junko Isa, Véronique Vuitton, Roland Thissen, Saburo Sakai, Toshihiro Yoshimura, Toshiki Koga, Naohiko Ohkouchi, Yoshito Chikaraishi, Haruna Sugahara, Hajime Mita, Yoshihiro Furukawa, Norbert Hertkorn, Alexander Ruf, Hisayoshi Yurimoto, Tomoki Nakamura, Takaaki Noguchi, Ryuji Okazaki, Hikaru Yabuta, Kanako Sakamoto, Shogo Tachibana, Harold C. Connolly, Dante S. Lauretta, Masanao Abe, Toru Yada, Masahiro Nishimura, Kasumi Yogata, Aiko Nakato, Miwa Yoshitake, Ayako Suzuki, Akiko Miyazaki, Shizuho Furuya, Kentaro Hatakeda, Hiromichi Soejima, Yuya Hitomi, Kazuya Kumagai, Tomohiro Usui, Tasuku Hayashi, Daiki Yamamoto, Ryota Fukai, Kohei Kitazato, Seiji Sugita, Noriyuki Namiki, Masahiko Arakawa, Hitoshi Ikeda, Masateru Ishiguro, Naru Hirata, Koji Wada, Yoshiaki Ishihara, Rina Noguchi, Tomokatsu Morota, Naoya Sakatani, Koji Matsumoto, Hiroki Senshu, Rie Honda, Eri Tatsumi, Yasuhiro Yokota, Chikatoshi Honda, Tatsuhiro Michikami, Moe Matsuoka, Akira Miura, Hirotomo Noda, Tetsuya Yamada, Keisuke Yoshihara, Kosuke Kawahara, Masanobu Ozaki, Yu-ichi Iijima, Hajime Yano, Masahiko Hayakawa, Takahiro Iwata, Ryudo Tsukizaki, Hirotaka Sawada, Satoshi Hosoda, Kazunori Ogawa, Chisato Okamoto, Naoyuki Hirata, Kei Shirai, Yuri Shimaki, Manabu Yamada, Tatsuaki Okada, Yukio Yamamoto, Hiroshi Takeuchi, Atsushi Fujii, Yuto Takei, Kento Yoshikawa, Yuya Mimasu, Go Ono, Naoko Ogawa, Shota Kikuchi, Satoru Nakazawa, Fuyuto Terui, Satoshi Tanaka, Takanao Saiki, Makoto Yoshikawa, Sei-ichiro Watanabe and Yuichi Tsuda, 24 February 2023, Science.
DOI: 10.1126/science.abn9033

Hayabusa2 is led by the Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency (JAXA) in collaboration with the German Space Center (DLR) and the French Space Agency (CNES), and supported by NASA and the Australian Space Agency (ASA). NASA supported the research under the Consortium for Hayabusa2 Analysis of Organic Solubles.

Source: SciTechDaily