Asteroids May Show How Life On Earth Began With 'Time Capsule' Molecules

This picture taken on August 12, 2017 shows a Perseid meteor along the Milky Way illuminating the dark sky near Comillas, Cantabria community, northern Spain, during the 'Perseids' meteor shower. Northern hemisphere sky-gazers are in for a special treat on August 11 and 13, night with a rare shooting star 'outburst', which astronomers hope will not be marred by clouds and a bright Moon. Cesar Manso/AFP/Getty Images

Was life on Earth carried in an asteroid?

That's the question being examined by researcher Nicholas Hud, who believes molecules within asteroids act as a time capsule that can help scientists piece together how compounds formed before life began.

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"We can look to the asteroids to help us understand what chemistry is possible in the universe," Hud, a professor at Georgia Institute of Technology, said in a statement. "It's important for us to study materials from asteroids and meteorites ... to test the validity of our models for how molecules in them could have helped give rise to life."

Hud, who spoke about his research on Saturday at the American Association for the Advancement of Science annual conference in Texas, believes the molecules that existed billions of years ago were likely not as complex as the ones we're familiar with in modern day.

"What we find is that these compounds can form molecules that look a lot like modern peptides, except in the backbone that is holding the units together," he explained. "The overall structure can be very similar and would be easier to make, though it doesn't have the ability to fold into as complex structures as modern proteins."

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Understanding the intricacies of the molecules can help Hud and the many other researchers studying asteroids get a better glimpse into the progression of life. Interestingly, the same rocky bodies which are thought to have allowed life to evolve may have restricted it at one point.

"It seems possible that the origin of life on the Earth's surface could have been first prevented by an enormous flux of impacting comets and asteroids, then a much less intense rain of comets may have deposited the very materials that allowed life to form some 3.5 to 3.8 billion years ago," according to NASA's Center for Near Earth Object Studies.