Scientists use meteorites to gain new insights into outer space with ultra-high mass spectrometry
Scientists have made significant strides in their ability to analyze the organic material found in meteorites, according to a report presented at the spring meeting of the American Chemical Society (ACS). Using ultra-high resolution mass spectrometry (MS), a team led by Alan Marshall, Ph.D., identified tens of thousands of molecular compounds in two carbonaceous chondrite meteorites: the well-known Murchison meteorite, which fell in Australia in 1969, and the relatively unexplored Aguas Zarcas meteorite that fell in Costa Rica in 2019.
The team's ultra-high resolution MS technique, which is capable of analyzing complex mixtures with very high levels of resolution and accuracy, revealed a larger amount of oxygen atoms in the meteorites' organic material than the researchers had expected. The data were sorted into unique groups based on various characteristics, such as whether they contained oxygen or sulfur, or potentially contained a ring structure or double bonds. The results represent the first analysis of this type on the Aguas Zarcas meteorite and the highest-resolution analysis on the Murchison one, with nearly twice as many molecular formulas identified as previously reported for the older meteorite.
The researchers will now turn their attention to analyzing a few grams of lunar dust collected during the Apollo 12 and 14 missions of 1969 and 1971 using their ultra-high resolution MS technique. The team hopes to use these samples to shed light on where the moon's surface came from by comparing their results to the data obtained from the meteorite analyses.
Joseph Frye-Jones, a graduate student who presented the work at the ACS meeting, emphasized that the analysis provides insights into what's out there in space and what humans might encounter as they move forward as a "spacefaring" species. He also highlighted the potential of the ultra-high resolution MS technique to provide a window into the origin of life itself.
Thousands of meteorites fall to Earth every year, but only a rare few are carbonaceous chondrites, which contain the most organic, or carbon-containing, material. Understanding the organic makeup of these meteorites can provide information about where and when the rocks formed and what they encountered on their journey through space. With the ultra-high resolution MS technique, scientists are now able to obtain even more detailed information from these precious samples, providing a deeper understanding of the universe and the earliest building blocks of life.