Amino acids – critical to life, the building blocks of proteins – are present in an amazing meteorite that apparently suffered a violent collision with another asteroid while still in space, before crashing to Earth in 2008.
Fragments of the meteorite – which, while in space, was named 2008 TC3 – are collectively called “Almahata Sitta” or “Station Six” after the train stop in northern Sudan near the location where pieces were recovered. 2008 TC3 is asteroid nomenclature. That’s because this object was spotted by astronomers while it was still in space – when it was a rock some 10 feet across – shortly before it crashed to Earth.
Amino acids have been found before in meteorites, but – while still in space – this one appears to have suffered a collision with another asteroid so powerful that it heated the object to more than 2,000 degrees Fahrenheit. That is “… hot enough that all complex organic molecules like amino acids should have been destroyed, but we found them anyway,” according to Dr. Daniel Glavin of NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center, Greenbelt, Md.
Glavin is lead author of a paper about the amino acids in 2008 TC3, published in a special issue of Meteoritics and Planetary Science in December 2010.
He said, “Finding them in this type of meteorite suggests that there is more than one way to make amino acids in space, which increases the chance for finding life elsewhere in the universe.”
Read the full story of the amino acids in 2008 TC3: Building Blocks of Life Created in “Impossible” Place
Meanwhile, the story of 2008 TC3 itself is fascinating, too. On October 6, 2008, an astronomer at the Catalina Sky Survey in Arizona spotted the object in space. It was soon discovered that, 20 hours later, this asteroid was to impact Earth. Astronomers managed to make observations of it, making it the first such body to be observed and tracked prior to reaching Earth.
In the predawn hour of October 7, satellites recorded a fireball as 2008 TC3 entered Earth’s atmosphere. It exploded an estimated 23 miles above the Nubian Desert in Sudan, west of the train stop known as Station 6. It’s said that the impact happened around the time of morning prayer and that thousands along the Nile from Abu Hamed in the south to Wadi Halfa in the north watched the fireball and remaining dust cloud as it was illuminated by the rising sun.
Since then, 280 pieces of 2008 TC3 have been collected from the Nubian Desert. They have provided a wealth of information to scientists who have studied them.
Deborah Byrd created the EarthSky radio series in 1991 and founded EarthSky.org in 1994. Today, she serves as Editor-in-Chief of this website. She has won a galaxy of awards from the broadcasting and science communities, including having an asteroid named 3505 Byrd in her honor. A science communicator and educator since 1976, Byrd believes in science as a force for good in the world and a vital tool for the 21st century. "Being an EarthSky editor is like hosting a big global party for cool nature-lovers," she says.