On the morning of April 22, 2012, the northern Californian skies were lit by a ball of light which, according to weather radar, crashed to earth in Sutter’s Mill west of the Sierra Nevada. The object’s descent was also visible across Nevada and created a sonic boom and fierce winds.

Initially, the meteor was thought to be of little interest to scientists, with Sandra Pizzarello, a research professor at Arizona State University, labelling it as " a huge disappointment", but a new study published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences has disclosed that organic molecules were present in the Sutter’s Mill specimen which had never been seen before in a meteorite. Even more remarkable is the fact that researchers believe those compounds could have the building blocks of life on this planet, providing the components necessary for molecular evolution.

It was only when it was decided to heat the meteor samples with water, a process which had yielded more positive results from previous space rock specimens, that Pizzorno and her team were astonished by what they found. The Sutter’s Mill meteorite was found to be a subclass of carbonaceous chondrite meteor, a rare type only seen in around 3% of samples, and rich in organic materials identical to those found in amino acids. Polyethers and polyether-esters, building blocks in the formations of cells, were observed in the sample and these were unlike anything ever previously found.
Scientists believe that these components were formed as a result of exposure to very high temperatures; in the case of the Sutter’s Mill asteroid this most probably occurred when the parent asteroid collided with other asteroids out in space, but the same effect may could have been achieved when carbonaceous chondrite meteors landed on Earth millions of years ago, as hydrothermal conditions or exposure to volcanic lava may have facilitated their formation.

With every delivery from space, scientists are getting closer to determining the recipe which made up the ‘primordial soup’ of primitive Earth, thought to have been the catalyst for all life on the planet, though the ingredients of this appear to be increasingly more complex than they first thought. Qing-zhu Yin, a geochemist at the University of California, Davis, also worked on the Sutter’s Mill meteor, and suggests that these rock samples represent the oldest known matter of our early solar system.

The origins of the Sutter’s Mill parent asteroid may yield even more clues: it has previously been suggested that life on Earth could have originated from Martian meteorites which had been hurled towards us by previous planetary collisions, and interestingly, when the orbit of the Sutter’s Mill meteor was analyzed, evidence suggested that it came from the far reaches of the asteroid belt, Eulalia, that which lies between Mars and Jupiter. In order to find out more about these , NASA and the European Space Agency are planning missions to carbon-rich asteroids in the next decade.

“Sutter’s Mill might provide a rare glimpse, a prelude so to speak, of what we might find on these target asteroids,” says Yin. “For me, the fun is just starting.”

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