U.S. Scientists Find Water Ice on Asteroid’s Surface

Using a NASA-funded telescope, U.S. scientists have detected water ice and carbon-based organic compounds on the surface of an asteroid, according to MSN News. According to recent research, there is evidence of water ice and organic material on the asteroid 24 Themis.

Researchers verified that the asteroid 24 Themis - a large rock hurtling through space in the asteroid belt between Mars and Jupiter - is coated in a layer of frost. Photo: Gabriel Prez / Servicio MultiMedia, Instituto de Astrofisica de Canarias, Tenerife, Spain

Using a NASA-funded telescope, U.S. scientists have detected water ice and carbon-based organic compounds on the surface of an asteroid, according to MSN News. According to recent research, there is evidence of water ice and organic material on the asteroid 24 Themis. The research was published in Wednesday’s issue of the journal Nature.

The research led by Josh Emery, assistant professor with the earth and planetary sciences department at the University of Tennessee (UT), found evidence that supports the idea that asteroids could be responsible for bringing water and organic material to earth.

Using NASA’s Infrared Telescope Facility on Hawaii’s Mauna Kea, Josh Emery and Andrew Rivkin of Johns Hopkins University in Laurel examined the surface of 24 Themis, a 200-km wide asteroid that sits halfway between Mars and Jupiter.

Andrew Rivkin, along with Joshua Emery of the University of Tennessee in Knoxville, used the NASA Infrared Telescope Facility to take measurements of the asteroid on seven separate occasions beginning in 2002. Buried in their compiled data was the consistent infrared signature of water ice and carbon-based organic materials.

The study’s findings are particularly surprising because it was believed that Themis, orbiting the sun at “only” 479 million km (297 million miles), was too close to the solar system’s fiery heat source to carry water ice left over from the solar system’s origin 4.6 billion years ago.

“The organics we detected appear to be complex, long-chained molecules. Raining down on a barren earth in meteorites, these could have given a big kick-start to the development of life,” Josh Emery said.

Emery noted that finding ice on the surface of 24 Themis was a surprise because the surface was too warm for ice to stick around for a long time. “This implies that ice is quite abundant in the interior of 24 Themis and perhaps many other asteroids. This ice on asteroids may be the answer to the puzzle of where earth’s water came from,” he added.

Still, how the water ice got there is unclear. 24 Themis’ proximity to the sun causes ice to vapourise. However, the researchers’ findings suggest the asteroid’s lifetime of ice ranges from thousands to millions of years depending on the latitude.

The scientists theorize this is done by a process of “outgassing” in which ice buried within the asteroid escapes slowly as vapour migrates through cracks to the surface or as vapour escapes quickly and sporadically when 24 Themis is hit by space debris.

Since Themis is part of an asteroid “family” that was formed from a large impact and the subsequent fragmentation of a larger body long ago, this scenario means the parent body also had ice and has deep implications for how our solar system formed. The discovery of abundant ice on 24 Themis demonstrates that water is much more common in the Main Belt of asteroids than previously thought, said an UT release.

“This is exciting because it provides us a better understanding about our past — and our possible future,” said Don Yeomans, manager of NASA’s Near-Earth Object Program Office. “This research indicates that not only could asteroids be possible sources of raw materials, but they could be the fueling stations and watering holes for future interplanetary exploration,” he said.

Rivkin and Emery’s findings were independently confirmed by a team led by Humberto Campins at the University of Central Florida in Orlando. And now, the astronomical community knows that this research could help rewrite the book on the solar system’s formation and the nature of asteroids. [via MSN News and India Times]

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