Scientists image individual atoms in minerals on ancient asteroids

A team of scientists from the Royal Ontario Museum, in collaboration with researchers at McMaster University and the University of York, is using what they call state-of-the-art technology to map individual atoms in minerals on asteroids 4.5 billion years ago. Scientists are using atomic probe tomography to study the Tajish meteorite at the Royal Ontario Museum. The technology enables 3D imaging of atoms.

The team studied the boundaries and pores between magnetite particles formed in the asteroid’s crust. In these boundaries and pores, the team discovered water deposits left on the grain boundary, and they carried out groundbreaking research on that basis. Lead author Dr Lee White said scientists knew that water was abundant in the early solar system, but there was little direct evidence of the chemical properties or acidity of liquids.

The chemical composition and acidity of these liquids are critical to the early formation and evolution of amino acids, as well as the eventual microbial life. The atomic-scale study provides scientists with the first evidence of sodium-rich and alkaline liquids when magnetite frames are formed. This fluid condition facilitates the synthesis of amino acids and opens the door to the formation of microbial life as early as 4.5 billion years ago.

The researchers say amino acids are an important part of life on Earth, but scientists still have a lot to learn about how they form in the solar system. The more the team knows about temperature and pH, the more they will learn about molecular synthesis and evolution, as well as what we know about life on Earth.

Lake Tajish’s carbon pellet meteorite was recovered from an ice sheet on Lake Tagish in British Columbia in 2000 and later acquired by the Royal Ontario Museum. The samples used by the team never exceeded room temperature or were exposed to liquid water, allowing scientists to link the measured fluid to the parent asteroid. Atomic probe tomography technology allows scientists to make discoveries in small amounts of material that is a thousand times thinner than human hair.

Scientists image individual atoms in minerals on ancient asteroids