Ancient meteorite could reveal the origins of life on Earth

A 4.6-billion-year-old meteorite found lying in the imprint of a horseshoe is likely a remnant of cosmic debris left over from the birth of the solar system and could answer questions about how life began on Earth.

The 4.6bn-year-old space rock found by Derek Robson in March

It was discovered by Loughborough resident Derek Robson, of the East Anglian Astrophysical Research Organisation(EAARO), in a Gloucestershire field, in March, after travelling from a distance of at least 110 million miles from its primordial home between the orbits of Mars and Jupiter in the asteroid belt.

Scientists at Loughborough University are now analysing the small charcoal-coloured space rock to determine its structure and composition in a bid to answer questions about the early solar system and possibly our own origins.

Along with colleagues from EAARO, researchers are using techniques such as electron microscopy to survey the surface morphology at the micron and nanometre scale; vibrational spectroscopy and X-ray diffraction, which give detailed information about chemical structure, phase and polymorphism, crystallinity and molecular interactions, to determine the structure and composition.

The material, which resembles loosely held-together concreted dust and particles, never underwent the violent cosmic collisions that most ancient space debris experienced as it smashed together to create the planets and moons of our solar system.

Differential interference contrast image of embedded mineral chondrules in the carbonaceous chondrite meteorite (optical micrograph)

“The internal structure is fragile and loosely bound, porous with fissures and cracks,” said Shaun Fowler - a specialist in optical and electron microscopy at the Loughborough Materials Characterisation Centre (LMCC).

“It doesn’t appear to have undergone thermal metamorphism, which means it’s been sitting out there, past Mars, untouched, since before any of the planets were created meaning we have the rare opportunity to examine a piece of our primordial past.

“The bulk of the meteorite is comprised of minerals such as olivine and phyllosilicates, with other mineral inclusions called chondrules.

“But the composition is different to anything you would find here on Earth and potentially unlike any other meteorites we’ve found – possibly containing some previously unknown chemistry or physical structure never before seen in other recorded meteorite samples.”

Secondary electron image of mineral chondrule in the carbonaceous chondrite meteorite revealing spherical mineral inclusions. (electron micrograph)

The ancient rock is a rare example of a carbonaceous chondrite, a type of meteorite which often contains organic material. Fewer than 5% of meteorites which fall to Earth belong to this classification.

Identifying organic compounds would support the idea that early meteorites carried amino acids – the building blocks of life – to supply the Earth’s primordial soup where life first began.

“Carbonaceous chondrites contain organic compounds including amino acids, which are found in all living things,” said Director of Astrochemistry at EAARO Derek Robson who found the meteorite and who will soon join Loughborough University as an academic visitor for collaborative research.

“Being able to identify and confirm the presence of such compounds from a material that existed before the Earth was born would be an important step towards understanding how life began.”

Professor Sandie Dann, of the Chemistry Department in the School of Science, first worked with Derek in 1997 and has kept in touch with him regularly since.

She said: “It’s a scientific fairy-tale. First your friend tracks a meteorite, then finds it and then gifts a bit of this extra-terrestrial material to you to analyse.

“At this stage, we have learned a good deal about it, but we’ve barely scratched the surface.

“There is huge potential to learn about ourselves and our solar system – it’s an amazing project to be part of.”

Secondary electron image of carbonaceous chondrite meteorite showing delicate layered leaf-like structures at 10,000x magnification. (electron micrograph)

Jason Williams, Managing Director of EAARO, added: “One of EAARO's primary objectives is to open the doors of science and technology to those who may not get the opportunity.

“Derek and I felt our new find could help us further these objectives by opening up research opportunities in meteoritical science.

“We carefully chose Loughborough, along with University of Sheffield, a number of commercial partners, and a handful of overseas specialists to work with us on this exciting project as we continue to excite and inspire people young and old by promoting and encourage space research and STEM subjects to a wider community.”

More about…

The East Anglian Astrophysical Research Organisation (EAARO) was founded in 2011 and has a Space Operations Centre (SOC) near Cambridge, a radio observatory and satellite ground station in Hertfordshire and a meteor radar system project on the Orkney Islands.

Its members include science and engineering specialists, radio astronomers and technical experts who have collaborated with institutions including Arizona State University, the University of Manchester, the Bayfordbury Observatory and the Jodrell Bank Centre for Astrophysics.

The Loughborough Materials Characterisation Centre (LMCC) is a core research facility at Loughborough University that supports researchers who require advanced materials characterisation.

It combines the talents of an experienced team of researchers and technicians together with world-class equipment to offer a unique service to users, both academic and industrial.


Notes for editors

Press release reference number: 21/xx

Loughborough is one of the country’s leading universities, with an international reputation for research that matters, excellence in teaching, strong links with industry, and unrivalled achievement in sport and its underpinning academic disciplines.

It has been awarded five stars in the independent QS Stars university rating scheme, named the best university in the world for sports-related subjects in the 2020 QS World University Rankings and University of the Year by The Times and Sunday Times University Guide 2019.

Loughborough is in the top 10 of every national league table, being ranked 7th in the Guardian University League Table 2021, 5th in the Times and Sunday Times Good University Guide 2020 and 6th in The UK Complete University Guide 2021.

Loughborough is consistently ranked in the top twenty of UK universities in the Times Higher Education’s ‘table of tables’ and is in the top 10 in England for research intensity. In recognition of its contribution to the sector, Loughborough has been awarded seven Queen's Anniversary Prizes.

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