New clues on origin of life found from water samples on Asteroid Itokawa

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Schematic view of asteroid Itokawa
A schematic view of the strange peanut-shaped asteroid Itokawa. By making exquisitely precise timing measurements using ESO’s New Technology Telescope, and combining them with a model of the asteroid's surface topography, a team of astronomers has found that different parts of this asteroid have different densities.

Water is a precious and limited resource yet humans have not valued it only until recent times where there is awareness about the shortage of water and global warming. Nowadays, a lot of research is going on to find traces of life outside the Earth and various space missions are held which have successfully found traces of water on the moon and Mars.

In 2010 however, Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency (JAXA) made history when its Hayabusa probe brought back samples from the Asteroid Itokawa, it was the first time mankind had gone to an asteroid, collected samples and brought it back safely to the Earth. After studying those samples a study was published in the Journal of Advanced Sciences that they contain lots of water inside them.

A cosmochemist at the Arizona State University, Maitrayee Bose had commented that no one really expected to find water samples on Itokawa as it was known that Itokawa asteroid faces temperatures up to 1500 degrees Fahrenheit and faces many collisions in space in the voyage. So there wasn’t much hope to find traces of water until we did a lot of calculations which showed that indeed it might be possible. Itokawa is a 1,800 foot long and 1,000-foot wide satellite which orbits the sun every 18 months, Itokawa was an asteroid which was remains of a bigger asteroid close to 12 miles long. The research done by Bose aims to study the internal chemistry of small building blocks for life. He is interested in finding out whether asteroids and other eternal bodies are able to deliver water and organic chemicals to other planets, and also find planets with the existence of water other than our Earth.

The samples from the JAXA which were brought back to Earth contained 5 samples which were half as thick as the sample of hair. Two of these samples contained mineral pyroxene. Pyroxenes contain water as a part of their crystalline structure and which then suspected Itokawa to contain water. To study these samples which were half the thickness of the strand of hair, the team used ASU’s Nanoscale Secondary Ion Mass Spectrometer (NanoSIMS), which can measure such tiny mineral grains with great sensitivity.

The results showed the presence of water and those relatively dry asteroids like Itokawa can also contain traces of water. Itokawa is an S-class satellite based on its spectrum. Bose further added that S – class satellites are most common objects in the asteroid belt and although they are small and have contained water and other volatile minerals which they are made up of. The race for exploration of water and life is heating up between countries and for the good of humanity.

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