compassion, collaboration & cooperation iN transistion
Marcia Campos Muñoz phoned her father, brother, and oldest son, who rushed to the house. On the terrace, they found a grapefruit-size hole in the corrugated zinc roof and a smashed-up plastic table, last used for the quinceañera of Campos Muñoz’s daughter. The culprit was scattered on the floor, in pieces as black as coal. She picked up the biggest fragment, still warm to the touch. Already, her phone was chiming with WhatsApp messages from friends telling of blazing fireballs and rocks raining down on farms and fields. The family added its own viral messages to the mix: photos of Campos Muñoz and her son holding the big stone that crashed through her roof. Within hours, a local journalist visited the house and streamed videos of the damage on Facebook Live. [IT] was only the beginning. A space rock the size of a washing machine had broken up in the skies over the village, and the excitement was about to spread globally.
From the beginning, the inky Aguas Zarcas resembled a legendary carbonaceous chondrite that exploded in 1969 over Murchison, an Australian cattle town. Geology students helped collect about 100 kilograms of Murchison, and a local postmaster mailed pieces of it to labs across the world. To date, scientists have recognized nearly 100 different amino acids in it, many used by organisms on Earth and many others rare or nonexistent in known life. Hundreds more amino acids have been inferred but not yet identified.
Murchison also contained nucleobases, the building blocks of genetic molecules such as RNA, and in November 2019, researchers found a major component of RNA’s backbone: the sugar molecule ribose. This half-century parade of discoveries jump-started the now-flourishing field of astrobiology. “We’re not detecting life itself, but the components are all there,” says Daniel Glavin, an astrobiologist at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center. “I wouldn’t have a job without Murchison.”
The 30 kilograms of primordial leftovers from Aguas Zarcas hold similar promise. But these new pieces are 50 years fresher than Murchison, allowing scientists to apply modern techniques to preserve and probe what amounts to fragile lumps of unspeakably old clay. They could sniff out delicate organic compounds long evaporated from Murchison. They could hunt not just for amino acids and sugars, but also proteins, which have long been suspected but never confirmed in a meteorite. And if they were clean and careful, they could hedge against a perennial criticism of the Murchison finds by ensuring the molecules discovered inside were native, and not contamination from Earth’s own microbes.
“If I had to start a new museum collection for meteorites, and I could only select two, I would choose Murchison and Aguas Zarcas,” says Philipp Heck, who curates the meteorite collection at Chicago’s Field Museum. “[IF] I could choose only one, I would choose Aguas Zarcas.”
Add a Comment