Meteorite Holds Millions of Unidentified Organic Compounds

by Nancy Atkinson on February 15, 2010

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A Murchison meteorite specimen at the National Museum of Natural History in Washington DC.

New analysis of the famous Murchison meteorite that crash-landed in Australia over 40 years ago shows the space rock contains millions of previously unidentified organic compounds. Researchers say the meteorite, which is over 4.65 billion old – and likely older than our Sun — offers evidence that the early solar system likely had a higher molecular diversity than Earth, and may offer clues to the origins of life on our planet.

Pair of grains from the Murchison meteorite.


Philippe Schmitt-Kopplin from the Institute for Ecological Chemistry in Neuherberg, Germany and his colleagues examined the carbon-rich meteorite with high-resolution structural spectroscopy and found signals representing more than 14,000 different elementary compositions, including 70 amino acids in a sample of the meteorite.

Schmitt-Kopplin said that given the ways in which organic molecules with the same composition can be arranged in space, the meteorite should contain several million different organic chemicals.

The Murchison meteorite landed near a town of the same name in 1969. Witnesses saw a bright fireball which separated into three fragments before disappearing, leaving a cloud of smoke. About 30 seconds later, a tremor was heard. Many specimens were found over an area larger than 13 square km, with individual masses up to 7 kg; one, weighing 680 g, broke through a barn roof and fell in some hay. The total collected mass exceeds 100 kg.

Earlier analysis of the space rock revealed the presence of a complex mixture of large and small organic chemicals.

The meteor probably passed through primordial clouds in the early solar system, picking up organic chemicals. The authors of the paper suggest that tracing the sequence of organic molecules in the meteorite may allow them to create a timeline for the formation and alteration of the molecules within it.

The results of the meteorite study are published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

About 

Nancy Atkinson is Universe Today's Senior Editor. She also works with Astronomy Cast, and is a NASA/JPL Solar System Ambassador.

Olaf February 15, 2010 at 3:03 PM

Creationist won’t like this story.

Although not scientifically, according to me the universe is filled with life. Biggest part will be microbes.

Maxwell February 15, 2010 at 4:17 PM

Not sure it matters to them.
Creationists are following an agenda and don’t care for what the Bible or religious leaders say, much less anything contained in an archeological dig or meteorite.
They want to become the voice of the conservative movement and inherit its political power. So what if it means making things up as they go along and demanding every God fearing man believe their sects twisted views.

The endgame is about control.

Aqua February 15, 2010 at 5:26 PM

I REALLY like this story… thanks Nancy!

I am listening and watching astronauts working in the ISS as I write (In another window)… they are moving the PMA-3 to a new location on the Harmony Module and outfitting the new Cupola in another part of the station at the same time. The above story makes me wonder if there is someone else watching… say someone from another planet?

exodus February 15, 2010 at 9:43 PM

this is a really old rock! i think its highly possible that it travelled much further than we might imagine… another part of the galaxy maybe? meaning that it could have picked up these organic compounds somewhere else indicating that life could have formed in that part of the galaxy. and given the age of the specimen amino acids + a whole lot of time means a whole lot of time to evolve into complex life, maybe a whole lot more complex than we thought possible. just an idea. i dont know how true it might be. im no scientist

IVAN3MAN February 15, 2010 at 10:33 PM

Aqua:

The above story makes me wonder if there is someone else watching… say someone from another planet?

You mean like this individual?

Dave Finton February 15, 2010 at 11:40 PM

IVAN3MAN: Ooooo! You’re making me very VERY angry!

Dark Gnat February 16, 2010 at 5:41 AM

Good stuff. I’m curious as to how this object came about. Was it among the first things to form in the dust cloud that eventually led to our solar system?

Or was it a remnant of an older system that created the cloud via supernova?

Lots to learn here!

CrazyEddieBlogger February 16, 2010 at 7:40 AM

“The Murchison meteorite landed near a town of the same name… ”

What are the odds for THAT happening?!

Aqua February 16, 2010 at 9:38 AM

@IVAN3MAN – Eeyup! That’s him/her!

Torbjorn Larsson OM February 17, 2010 at 5:36 AM

Not that I as layman know which to prefer of either the genetic (“soup”) or the metabolic (“vent”) theory, but this type of observation makes each pass tests.

The soup theory gets its organics varied and delivered as it predicts. The vent theory gets them (photo)selected as it predicts – the Zn world specifically so. Good on both I say, it proves that there is life in them! :-D

RUF February 20, 2010 at 12:38 PM

Cool that the meterorite is older than the Sun. One can’t help imagining this rock tumbling thru space from….. somewhere.

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