Life’s buildings blocks in impossible place, plus a whalloping meteorite tale

Since it crashed to Earth over two years ago, an object called 2008 TC3 has fascinated scientists. Now it appears this object contains amino acids, the building blocks of life.

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.

Credit for image above: Rocks from Space

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

University of Khartoum students and staff prepare to search for remnants of 2008 TC3.

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.

Anthony Remijan on space molecules and the search for life’s origins

David Helfand on risk from killer asteroids

Two asteroids caught in the act of colliding?

Deborah Byrd