Scientists that have been digging into the impact of an ancient meteor, the Tagish Lake meteorite, which exploded in the distant past above what is today Canada, appear to have arrived at the traces and roots of potentially the oldest source of fluid in the entire Solar System, new research in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences revealed.
The team led by researchers from the Royal Ontario Museum (ROM) and co-authors from McMaster University and York University, used a state-of-the-art 3D technique called atom-probe tomography to target molecules along boundaries and pores between raspberry-like magnetite grains that likely formed on the 4.5 billion-old asteroid’s surface.
There, they stumbled upon water precipitates left in the grain boundaries on which they focused their unrivalled research.
"We know water was abundant in the early Solar System", lead author Dr Lee White, Hatch postdoctoral fellow at the ROM, starts by saying, admitting that "there is very little direct evidence of the chemistry or acidity of these liquids, even though they would have been critical to the early formation and evolution of amino acids and, eventually, microbial life".
However, the research in question has provided evidence of the sodium-rich (and alkaline) fluids in which the magnetite framboids formed on the celestial body, retrieved in 2000. These fluid conditions, abundant sodium and subsequently high levels of PH, are deemed as preferential for the synthesis of amino acids - the main building blocks of life on Earth. Whatever the case, there is a lot yet to be studied:
"We still have a lot to learn about how they first formed in our Solar System", says Beth Lymer, a PhD student from the Lassonde School of Engineering at York University and co-author of the study, suggesting that "the more variables that we can constrain, such as temperature and pH, allows us to better understand the synthesis and evolution of these very important molecules into what we now know as biotic life on Earth".
The studied sample was undug from an ice sheet, which led the scientists to believe that since it was never in conditions above room temperature, the discovered fluids could well belong to the parent asteroid, and thus date back to the birth of the Solar System.
White has praised the method used referring to it as an opportunity to make fantastic discoveries "on bits of material a thousand times thinner than a human hair". The academic argued that the technique would enable the researchers to learn more about and preserve what is carried to Earth by space missions - those "tiny amounts of material".