Sunday, May 2, 2010

Water And Organics Detected on an Asteroid

It is important to stress that 'organics' does not necessarily mean life. That said, the asteroid seems a good place to check for it.

"Researchers have found evidence on one asteroid – 24 Themis – of water ice and organic materials. This discovery is exciting on two fronts: one, this evidence supports the idea that asteroids could be responsible for bringing water and organic material to Earth, and two, if the proposed path for NASA is to visit an asteroid, having water and organics at the destination makes things a bit more interesting.

24 Themis, a 200-kilometer wide asteroid sits halfway between Mars and Jupiter. Using NASA's Infrared Telescope Facility on Hawaii's Mauna Kea, Josh Emery from the University of Tennessee, Knoxville and Andrew Rivkin of Johns Hopkins University measured the spectrum of infrared sunlight reflected by the asteroid and found the spectrum consistent with frozen water. They determined that 24 Themis is coated with a thin film of ice. They also detected organic material.

"The organics we detected appear to be complex, long-chained molecules. Raining down on a barren Earth in meteorites, these could have given a big kick-start to the development of life," Emery said.

Finding ice on the surface of 24 Themis was a surprise because its proximity to the sun causes ice to vaporize. Plus, the surface temperatures are too warm for ice to stick around for a long time.

"This implies that ice is quite abundant in the interior of 24 Themis and perhaps many other asteroids," Emery said, and therefore the ice is regularly being replenished.

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