A stepping stone toward unraveling the origin of life

How did life on Earth begin? A recent achievement could help us solve this great mystery.

Amino acids have been discovered in stone and sand samples collected from the Ryugu asteroid by the Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency’s Hayabusa2 unmanned explorer. Amino acids, which combine to form proteins, are the building blocks of life.

It has been hypothesized that some of the materials necessary for the birth of life might have come from outer space, as the necessary conditions did not exist naturally on Earth. According to theories that have been gaining momentum in recent years, the seeds of life may have been deposited on Earth by meteorites and comets.

The latest discovery has provided some backing to this romantic idea, which points to connections between life on Earth and the universe.

In the past, amino acids have been detected in meteorites that landed on Earth. However, it has been claimed that these amino acids could have originated on Earth because the meteorites came into contact with our planet’s atmosphere and surface before they were examined.

There is apparently little room for doubt regarding the origin of the amino acids detected in the stones and sand from Ryugu, because Hayabusa2 encapsulated the collected samples on the asteroid before returning to Earth. It is hoped that JAXA and other organizations will conduct detailed analyses of the amino acids.

Hayabusa2 accomplished the difficult mission of making a brief touchdown on Ryugu, shooting a metal projectile into its surface to create a crater, then landing a second time to collect samples. Advanced technologies led to this scientific achievement.

The Hayabusa project, including the predecessor probe that returned to Earth in 2010, is the pride of Japan’s space development program. The project will serve as a guideline for the nation’s future space exploration because of the success achieved with a probe that has received international attention despite a relatively small budget.

The first Hayabusa’s return to Earth was precarious, as there was a failure in its main engine, among other issues. The return of a probe that had overcome many problems captured the attention of the public, building momentum for Hayabusa2.

It can be said that broad support from the public has led to the latest groundbreaking discovery.

Private companies are increasingly participating in space development, and the era in which even ordinary people can visit space is about to begin. Humanity’s advance into space will likely continue to accelerate, including a manned exploration of the lunar surface being planned by Japan and the United States.

If more people can observe the blue glow of Earth from space, the human desire to understand the origins of the solar system and life on this planet will only increase. It is essential for the government to continue extending support to further improve capabilities in the science and technology field.

(From The Yomiuri Shimbun, June 10, 2022)