3 million-year-old comet piece found inside a meteorite, could contain building blocks of life

A piece of a comet, thought to be between 3 and 3.5 million-years-old, has been found inside a meteorite and it could potentially contain the building blocks of life, according to a new study.

The meteorite was found in the LaPaz icefield in Antarctica, the researchers noted, adding they were surprised to see that the tiny sample of the comet was intact.

"Because this sample of cometary building-block material was swallowed by an asteroid and preserved inside this meteorite, it was protected from the ravages of entering Earth’s atmosphere," Carnegie Institution for Science's Larry Nittler said in a statement. "It gave us a peek at material that would not have survived to reach our planet’s surface on its own, helping us to understand the early solar system's chemistry."

The arrow in this view of the LaPaz meteorite points to where the scientists found the carbon-rich cometary fragment. The colors are produced by polarized light shining through a thin slice of the meteorite; the grid lines are spaced one millimeter apart. (Credit: Carles Moyano-Cambero/Institute of Space Sciences, Barcelona)

The arrow in this view of the LaPaz meteorite points to where the scientists found the carbon-rich cometary fragment. The colors are produced by polarized light shining through a thin slice of the meteorite; the grid lines are spaced one millimeter apart. (Credit: Carles Moyano-Cambero/Institute of Space Sciences, Barcelona)

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"The existence of this cometary microxenolith [interloping minerals] supports the idea of a radially inward transport of materials from the outer protoplanetary disk into the CR chondrite reservoir during the formation of planetesimals," the study's abstract reads. "Moreover, the H-isotopic composition of the clast is suggestive of a temporal evolution of organic isotopic compositions in the comet-forming region of the disk."

The study has been published in the scientific journal Nature.

The meteorite, known as LaPaz Icefield 02342, belongs to "a class of primitive carbonaceous chondrite meteorites that have undergone minimal changes" since being formed more than 4.5 billion years ago, outside Jupiter's orbit, according to Arizona State University research scientist Jemma Davidson.

These types of space rocks have previously contained organic compounds, water and even amino acids and nucleobases, the building blocks of protein and DNA, Live Science reported.

The part of the comet found inside the meteorite is exceptionally small, at just 0.1 millimeters across, but its importance far outweighs its diminutive size.

The carbon-rich fragment the material comets are built from is colored red in this scanning electron microscope image. The scale bar shows its size. (Credit: Larry Nittler/Carnegie Institution for Science)

The carbon-rich fragment the material comets are built from is colored red in this scanning electron microscope image. The scale bar shows its size. (Credit: Larry Nittler/Carnegie Institution for Science)

"Primitive meteorites provide a snapshot of the early solar system that we can study in the lab,” Davidson said in the statement. "The LaPaz meteorite is a nice example since it has experienced minimal terrestrial weathering."

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"When I saw the first electron images of the carbon-rich material. I knew we were looking at something very rare. It was one of those exciting moments you live for as a scientist," Davidson added.

The presence of the comet inside LaPaz Icefield 02342 and the pristine nature of it may reveal information about the early days of the solar system and how planets formed.

"Discoveries like this demonstrate how important it is to retrieve precious meteorites like LaPaz from Antarctica," Davidson said. "We never know what secrets they’ll reveal."

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