Scientists believe that the discovery of ice and organic molecules on an asteroid lingering in orbit between Mars and Jupiter hints at the origin of Earth’s oceans and life 4 billion years ago.
“What we’ve found suggests that an asteroid like this one may have hit Earth and brought our planet its water,” said UCF Physics Professor HumbertoCampins, the lead author of a study which will be published in the April 29 edition of the journal Nature.
Some theories posit that Earth formed dry, and that it was asteroids that brought Earth it’s water. Salt and water found in some meteorites have added credibility to the theory.
Researchers at the University of Central Florida have detected a thin layer of water ice and organic molecules on the surface of 24 Themis, one of the largest asteroids in the Main Belt – the massive asteroid belt located roughly between Mars and Jupiter – and the largest in the Themis asteroid family.
The researchers used NASA’s Infrared Telescope Facility in Hawaii to measure the intensity of the reflected sunlight as 24 Themis rotated. The differences in intensity at different wavelengths helped the researchers determine the makeup of the asteroid’s surface. They were surprised to find ice and carbon-based compounds evenly distributed on 24 Themis’ surface, and were further surprised considering that any ice on the surface of an asteroid should be short lived.
The researchers hope that 24 Themis might have preserved the ice in its subsoil, just below the surface of the asteroid, and provide scientists with a “living fossil” of what the early solar system was like.