Scientists Find Dust Grains Older Than Our Sun In Samples Taken from Asteroid Ryugu!

Bits and pieces of a disintegrating asteroid (NASA/JPL-Caltech)

Bits and pieces of a disintegrating asteroid

(NASA/JPL-Caltech)

In the very beginning, blistering and freezing rocks dominated the face of the Earth. There was nothing except some unfeeling elements and compounds that followed only the simple whimsy of physics — similar to any random piece of rock or gravel you see on the road. And then, boom — we’re stuck trying to control overpopulation before we make the planet boil over. But how did we even get here?

Some scientists reckon life was a product of extraterrestrial activity. Now, the study of some space dust that scientists brought back from an alien asteroid named Ryugu — located in the outer reaches of our solar system — indicates that that actually might be the case!

First things first: Why Ryugu?

Japan’s Hayabusa2 probe was launched in 2014 with the mission of bringing back a piece of the near-Earth asteroid. Ryugu (translating roughly to ‘The Palace of a Dragon King’) was chosen for the mission as it is among the most pristine sources of extraterrestrial particles available that have not been contaminated by the development of our Solar System.

This lack of adulteration in the space rock has enabled scientists to have sort of a memory capsule of the processes that shaped solar systems like ours, allowing us to understand such cosmic development. Imagine having X-Ray films of your bones from your childhood — you’d actually be able to see how they stretched and enlarged as you grew up!

Earth H2O — powered by Ryugu Inc.

Analysis of dust from Ryugu that was brought back to Earth in 2020 revealed the presence of amino acids, one of the building blocks of life. This finding suggests that a similar class of asteroids might’ve been responsible for hydrating the Earth in the past.

The existence of amino acids in the asteroid samples is especially interesting because they form a group of volatile organic compounds whose interaction with our planet could’ve potentially helped refurbish it with its water.

While it is unlikely that these asteroids are the only source of volatiles for early Earth, the fact that we know that the space rocks can act as carriage systems for such organic compounds does help provide great insight into the essential processes that inundate such rudimentary planets with early life.

A chip off a much older block?

Since Ryugu is also a mishmash of elemental dust from the debris of many other cosmic bodies, scientists had to blast the surface of the asteroid to obtain virgin samples from the space rock. The team believes it can pinpoint the type of stellar processes required to form Ryugu by simply studying its morphology, which would also help provide an insight into the evolution of our solar system.

Dating the samples using isotope analysis techniques as well as scanning transmission X-ray microscopy has shown that some of the grains of dust are older than our solar system itself! However, this wasn’t much of a surprise, as we had already seen similarly ancient dust in other meteorites that plummeted to the Earth in the past, some even dating as far back as 7 billion years ago.

But here’s something that was especially strange. We also found some extremely rare silicates among the asteroid grains — elements that would normally be destroyed in the usual chemical processes that take place in such environments. This persistence of such weak elements in the space rock despite the all-pervasive Sun’s wrathful radiation means that they were likely shielded by something in the rock itself. However, scientists are yet to figure out exactly what that is.

Whatever the reason may be, we are definitely inching closer to an answer to the origin question. Further, NASA’s OSIRIS-REx mission, due to return to Earth next year, will bring more samples from another near-Earth asteroid called Bennu. Who knows what else we might uncover when that happens!

The study was recently published in the journal Astrophysical Journal Letters on Monday, August 15, and can be accessed here.

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