Life may have arrived from space

November 13, 2013
Life may have arrived from space
False-coloured scanning electron microscope image showing organic material in meteorite debris.

New research shows that organic molecules, on which life is based, can survive the impact from a meteorite.

Reporting in the journal Nature Geoscience, mineralogist Dr Kieran Howard and his team have discovered intact inside debris from a meteorite impact. Dr Howard was a researcher at the Museum when he performed the analyses.

This is the first evidence that any , either inside a meteorite or already on Earth, can survive the impact of a meteorite striking the planet at high speed.

The discovery lends weight to the idea of panspermia – the suggestion that life on our planet was seeded by material falling from space.

The debris studied by the team was thrown up by a meteorite impact in Western Tasmania, Australia, leaving a 1.2km diameter crater known as Darwin Crater.

The meteorite crash-landed on Earth approximately 800,000 years ago at a speed of up to 18kms per second, and with a possible temperature on impact of more than 1,700°C.

It was thought that any organic material would be vaporised by the extreme temperature and pressure of a collision. But the researchers found organic matter within the impact debris from local swamps and rainforests present when the meteorite struck.

Extra-terrestrial life

'We were surprised by our discovery,' said Dr Howard. 'We have long assumed any organic molecules, such as amino acids would not survive a meteorite impact. The evidence we have now supports an old hypothesis that impacts might have delivered the building blocks of life to the early Earth.'

It has been experimentally proven that some bacteria can survive the heat and speed of entering our atmosphere, but whether anything could survive an actual impact was uncertain.

Tiny time capsules

The evidence for the new research comes from 'impact glasses', smooth spheres that form when the energy of a melts the rock it strikes and sends it hurtling through the air. These droplets are flung huge distances, solidifying as they travel.

The impact glasses used in the study were strewn up to 20km from the impact site at Darwin Crater.

Inside the glasses the team found tiny inclusions of organic material, sometimes less than 0.001mm in diameter. They were able to analyse this material and confidently link it to plants that existed in the nearby swamps and rainforests of the time.

Life on Mars?

Organic material usually degrades over time, but inside the impact glasses it was perfectly preserved for nearly one million years.

Impact glasses act as tiny time capsules, preserving a record of the local environment at the time of the meteorite strike. This adds new dimensions to the search for evidence of life on Mars.

Since material ejected from Earth could reach Mars in as little as 30,000 years, organic material originating in Earth impact glasses could be found on the surface of the red planet.

Mars' own impact glasses could also have preserved material from a time when we know the planet was much wetter and warmer, and may have been able to support .

Explore further: Analysis of Sutter's Mill fragments reveals organic compounds not seen in other meteorites

Related Stories

Moroccan desert meteorite delivers Martian secrets

October 11, 2012

(Phys.org)—A meteorite that landed in the Moroccan desert 14 months ago is providing more information about Mars, the planet where it originated. University of Alberta researcher Chris Herd helped in the study of the Tissint ...

Could life have survived a fall to Earth?

September 12, 2013

(Phys.org) —It sounds like science fiction, but the theory of panspermia, in which life can naturally transfer between planets, is considered a serious hypothesis by planetary scientists. The suggestion that life did not ...

Recommended for you

Video: A colorful 'landing' on Pluto

January 20, 2017

What would it be like to actually land on Pluto? This movie was made from more than 100 images taken by NASA's New Horizons spacecraft over six weeks of approach and close flyby in the summer of 2015. The video offers a trip ...

Freeze-dried food and 1 bathroom: 6 simulate Mars in dome

January 20, 2017

Crammed into a dome with one bathroom, six scientists will spend eight months munching on mostly freeze-dried foods—with a rare treat of Spam—and have only their small sleeping quarters to retreat to for solace.

The evolution of massive galaxy clusters

January 20, 2017

Galaxy clusters have long been recognized as important laboratories for the study of galaxy formation and evolution. The advent of the new generation of millimeter and submillimeter wave survey telescopes, like the South ...

Image: Wavemaker moon Daphnis

January 20, 2017

The wavemaker moon, Daphnis, is featured in this view, taken as NASA's Cassini spacecraft made one of its ring-grazing passes over the outer edges of Saturn's rings on Jan. 16, 2017. This is the closest view of the small ...

Astronomers search for signs of life on Wolf 1061 exoplanet

January 19, 2017

Is there anybody out there? The question of whether Earthlings are alone in the universe has puzzled everyone from biologists and physicists to philosophers and filmmakers. It's also the driving force behind San Francisco ...

2 comments

Adjust slider to filter visible comments by rank

Display comments: newest first

Jonseer
1 / 5 (3) Nov 13, 2013
what utterly worthless speculation, because there will never be a way to prove or disprove it. Just astrobiologists getting paid to sit around and mentally masturbate to prove they are spending tax payer money wisely.
Q-Star
5 / 5 (2) Nov 13, 2013
The discovery lends weight to the idea of panspermia – the suggestion that life on our planet was seeded by material falling from space.


It lends weight, eh? How does it lend weight? It means no more than "it doesn't rule it out". When they find a complex very large molecule, say a protein, that survived intact,, that might be considered "lending weight" to the idea of panspermia. "Organic molecule" doesn't say much more than "it has some carbon in it" it could mean something impressive or it could mean something ho-hum,,, maybe they should have told us a little more about just what type of "organic molecule" they are working with.

Please sign in to add a comment. Registration is free, and takes less than a minute. Read more

Click here to reset your password.
Sign in to get notified via email when new comments are made.