Some asteroids may have been like "molecular factories" cranking out life's ingredients and shipping them to Earth via meteorite impacts. Now it appears that at least one asteroid may have been less like a rigid assembly line and more like a flexible diner that doesn't mind making changes to the menu.
Astrobiologists at NAI's Goddard Space Flight Center and Carnegie Institution of Washington teams studying the carbon-rich Tagish Lake meteorite have discovered that different pieces of it have greatly differing amounts of amino acids, the building blocks of proteins and essential ingredients to life as we know it.
In January, 2000, a large meteoroid exploded in the atmosphere over northern British Columbia, Canada, and rained fragments across the frozen surface of Tagish Lake. Because many people witnessed the fireball, pieces were collected within days and kept preserved in their frozen state. This ensured that there was very little contamination from terrestrial life.
"The Tagish Lake meteorite fell on a frozen lake in the middle of winter and was collected in a way to make it the best preserved meteorite in the world," said Dr. Christopher Herd of the University of Alberta, Edmonton, Canada, lead author of a paper about the analysis of the meteorite fragments published June 10 in the journal Science.
"The first Tagish Lake samples -- the ones we used in our study that were collected within days of the fall -- are the closest we have to an asteroid sample return mission in terms of cleanliness," adds Dr. Michael Callahan of NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Md., a co-author on the paper.