Samples returned to Earth from the asteroid Ryugu, analyzed in part at the Advanced Light Source (ALS), revealed that the building blocks of life formed 4.6 billions years ago in the extreme cold of space, followed by reaction with water.
The dark, coal-like organic matter in the carbonaceous asteroid could have contributed to the formation of habitable planetary environments.
In 2014, the Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency (JAXA) launched the Hayabusa2 spacecraft. Its mission: to collect and return samples from the near-Earth asteroid, Ryugu. Asteroids are excellent time capsules, preserving material sourced from the early solar system in pristine condition. With such samples, scientists aim to learn more about how extraterrestrial organic compounds were formed and modified, and whether this material could have eventually seeded life on Earth. Although meteorites can provide valuable information along these lines, they are subject to terrestrial weathering and other contamination from a planet teeming with life.
Hayabusa2 returned to Earth in 2020 to drop off a capsule containing about 5 grams of extraterrestrial material. The spacecraft then left Earth orbit for an extended mission to a smaller asteroid, called 1998 KY26. The samples it left behind were carefully curated and distributed to teams around the world for study.
In the portion of the sample analysis described here, an international team of 130 researchers, led by Hikaru Yabuta at Hiroshima University, received a share of the irreplaceable Ryugu particles for studies of their organic (carbon-based) content. They examined intact Ryugu grains and insoluble carbonaceous residues isolated by acid treatment.
At ALS Beamline 188.8.131.52, the researchers used scanning transmission x-ray microscopy (STXM) to identify discrete grains of organic material (about 200 nm in size) for further examination by x-ray absorption near-edge structure (XANES) spectroscopy. The beamline enables the acquisition of elemental maps and functional group compositions in submicron-sized sample areas with a spatial resolution below 30 nm.
Read more on the ALS website
Image: Artwork showing the Hayabusa2 spacecraft retrieving a sample from the surface of asteroid Ryugu
Credit: Akihiro Ikeshita