Water may have been brought to Earth by asteroids, “precious samples” from recent space mission show

Water may have been brought to Earth by asteroids from the outer edges of the solar system, scientists said after analyzing rare samples collected on a six-year Japanese space mission.

In a quest to shed light on the origins of life and the formation of the universe, researchers are scrutinizing material brought back to earth in 2020 from the asteroid Ryugu.

Japan’s Hayabusa2 probe, which is roughly the size of a refrigerator, launched in December 2014, landing on the diamond-shaped asteroid Ryugu, which means “dragon palace” in Japanese, located 185 million miles away.  When it plummeted to Earth in 2020, the capsule provided a stunning show above the Australian outback, streaking across the sky as a dazzling fireball. 

The 5.4 grams (0.2 ounces) of rocks and dust were gathered by the Japanese space probe that landed on the celestial body and fired an “impactor” into its surface.

Studies on the material are beginning to be published, and in June, one group of researchers said they had found organic material which showed that some of the building blocks of life on Earth, amino acids, may have been formed in space.

In a new paper published in the journal Nature Astronomy, scientists said the Ryugu samples could give clues to the mystery of how oceans appeared on Earth billions of years ago.

“Volatile and organic-rich C-type asteroids may have been one of the main sources of Earth’s water,” said the study by scientists from Japan and other countries, published Monday.

“The delivery of volatiles (that is, organics and water) to the Earth is still a subject of notable debate,” it said.

But the organic materials found “in Ryugu particles, identified in this study, probably represent one important source of volatiles.”

The scientists hypothesized that such material probably has an “outer Solar System origin”, but said it was “unlikely to be the only source of volatiles delivered to the early Earth.”

In the Nature Astronomy study, the researchers again hailed the findings made possible by the mission.

“Ryugu particles are undoubtedly among the most uncontaminated Solar System materials available for laboratory study and ongoing investigations of these precious samples will certainly expand our understanding of early Solar System processes,” the study said.

The NASA OSIRIS-REx mission collected a sample from another near-Earth asteroid — Bennu, which is similar to Ryugu. The sample will return to Earth in 2023. 

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This Nov. 13, 2019, file image released by JAXA, shows asteroid Ryugu taken by Japan’s Hayabusa2 spacecraft. JAXA via AP, File

Sophie Lewis contributed to this report.

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