Where did life come from? Recent findings from the Japanese asteroid explorer Hayabusa2 may have brought us a big step closer to unraveling that mystery. Rock samples that the explorer brought back from the asteroid Ryugu were found to contain organic matter that forms the building blocks of life, including amino acids.
Following a journey of 5.2 billion kilometers, Hayabusa2 sent a capsule carrying a 5.4-gram sample of rock, sand and other matter back to Earth in December 2020.
Asteroids have been referred to as “fossils of the solar system.” That is because they contain traces of the state of our solar system when it developed some 4.6 billion years ago. Ryugu, in particular, contains a lot of water and organic material. It was chosen as a destination for the asteroid explorer in an attempt to shed light on the origins of life on Earth and its oceans.
Amino acids have also been found in meteorites that are believed to be fragments of asteroids, but the possibility that they were mixed in after the meteorites fell to Earth could not be ruled out. The sample from Ryugu marks the first time in the world for amino acids to be found in rock matter from an asteroid that has not been exposed to Earth’s environment.
Regarding the origin of life, there is a hypothesis that meteorites and other matter flew to ancient Earth, bringing with them organic matter.
The latest discovery confirms that matter that can become a source of life indeed exists in space as well. We can say it is a result pointing to the possibility that asteroids were “homes” for life.
However, it has not been determined why there were just 20 types of amino acids that can form living organisms in the sample bought back from the asteroid. Work to shed light on the relationship between the organic matter from space and the birth of life on Earth will continue.
Rock matter from Ryugu will be distributed to researchers across the world. It is hoped that analyzing matter that humanity has obtained for the first time will lead to many other discoveries, such as those relating to the history of the solar system.
Japan’s Hayabusa and Hayabusa2 probes were successful in bringing back matter from asteroids, which no one else had considered, and establishing new exploration technology.
However, Japan only has a few new projects. With the space exploration budget limited, there is a tendency to rely on projects involving international collaboration. Succession of the technology that Japan’s explorations gave rise to is under threat.
Hayabusa2 Project Manager Yuichi Tsuda commented, “Good technology is fed by good attempts and failures.” In the future, we hope Japan will continue to exhibit its originality and unravel the mysteries of space. In order to do that, continued support from the government is indispensable.