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Water in asteroid dust offers clues to life on Earth

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Tokyo (AFP) – Dust particles picked up by a Japanese spacecraft from an asteroid some 300 million kilometers from Earth have revealed a surprising component: a drop of water, scientists said Friday.

The discovery provides new support for the theory that life on Earth was seeded from space.

The findings are in the latest research published based on the analysis of 5.4 grams of rock and dust collected by the Hayabusa-2 probe of the asteroid Ryugu.

“This drop of water has great significance,” Tohoku University lead scientist Tomoki Nakamura told reporters ahead of the study’s publication in the journal Science on Friday.

“Many researchers believe that water was brought in (from space), but we discovered water for the first time in Ryugu, a near-Earth asteroid.”

Hayabusa-2 was launched in 2014 during its mission to Ryugu and returned to Earth orbit two years ago to release a capsule containing the monster.

The precious cargo has already provided several insights, including organic material showing that some of the building blocks of life on Earth, amino acids, may have formed in space.

The research published Friday says the team found a drop of liquid in the Ryugu sample “which was carbonated water containing salt and organic matter,” Nakamura said.

That supports the theory that asteroids like Ryugu, or its larger parent asteroid, when colliding with Earth “could have provided water containing salt and organic matter,” Nakamura said.


“We found evidence that this (process) may be directly related to, for example, the origin of the oceans or organic matter on Earth.”

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Nakamura’s team, made up of about 150 researchers — including 30 from the United States, Britain, France, Italy and China — is one of the largest teams analyzing Ryugu’s sample.

The sample is divided among several scientific teams to maximize the chance of new discoveries.

Kensei Kobayashi, an astrobiology expert and professor emeritus at Yokohama National University who is not part of the research group, praised the discovery.

“The fact that water has been discovered in the sample itself is surprising,” given its fragility and the likelihood of it being destroyed in space, he told AFP.

“It suggests that the asteroid contained water — in the form of liquid and not just ice — and that organic matter may have been generated in that water.”



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