Specks of dust that a Japanese space probe retrieved from an asteroid about 186 million miles (300m kilometres) from Earth have revealed a surprising component: a drop of water.
The discovery offers new support for the theory that life on Earth may have been seeded from outer space.
The findings are in the latest research to be published from analysis of 5.4 grammes of stones and dust that the Hayabusa-2 probe gathered from the asteroid Ryugu.
“This drop of water has great meaning,” the lead scientist, Tomoki Nakamura of Tohoku University, told reporters before publication of the research in the journal Science on Friday.
“Many researchers believe that water was brought [from outer space]but we actually discovered water in Ryugu, an asteroid near Earth, for the first time.”
Hayabusa-2 was launched in 2014 on its mission to Ryugu, and returned to Earth’s orbit two years ago to drop off a capsule containing the sample.
The precious cargo has already yielded several insights, including organic material that showed some of the building blocks of life on Earth, amino acids, may have been formed in space.
The team’s latest discovery was a drop of fluid in the Ryugu sample “which was carbonated water containing salt and organic matter”, Nakamura said.
That bolsters the theory that asteroids such as Ryugu, or its larger parent asteroid, could have “provided water, which contains salt and organic matter” in collisions with Earth, he said.
“We have discovered evidence that this may have been directly linked to, for example, the origin of the oceans or organic matter on Earth.”
Nakamura’s team, which is made up of about 150 researchers – including 30 from the US, Britain, France, Italy and China – is one of the largest teams analyzing the sample from Ryugu.
The sample has been divided among different scientific teams to maximize the chance of new discoveries.
Kensei Kobayashi, an astrobiology expert and professor emeritus at Yokohama National University who is not part of the research group, hailed the discovery.
“The fact that water was discovered in the sample itself is surprising”, given its fragility and the chances of it being destroyed in outer space, he said.
“It does suggest that the asteroid contained water, in the form of fluid and not just ice, and organic matter may have been generated in that water.”