Japan’s asteroid probe reportedly found 20 amino acids

Dust that Japan's Hayabusa2 probe returned to Earth from asteroid Ryugu reportedly contain 20 amino acids, according to Japanese media.

Which is very exciting indeed, because amino acids are the stuff of life. They help to build proteins, act as neurotransmitters in the brain, and are utterly ubiquitous and essential in terrestrial life. Just last month, esteemed journal Nature published research suggesting that amino acids had a crucial role in the evolution of the first self-replicating molecules.

Outlets such as Nikkei report that a Science ministry spokesperson mentioned the presence of amino acids yesterday, with a hint of peer-reviewed work to come but no other detail.

That's scant information, but Japanese space agency JAXA has previously hinted it would share big news about Hayabusa2 in the (northern) spring. The presence of amino acids on asteroid Ryugu qualifies as very big news, because one of the mysteries of the universe is how and why life evolved here on Earth.

One theory is that the ingredients for life can be found in space, and their occasional encounters with comets, asteroids, planets or moons allows life to spread.

Finding amino acids on Ryugu is a boost for that theory.

There's a long way to go before the theory solidifies. For starters, Hayabusa2 brought just 5.4 grams of asteroid material to Earth and Ryugu is just one of countless asteroids. Peer-reviewed research is yet to appear.

On the upside, amino acids were also found on the Moon. On the downside, Japan's first asteroid sample return mission found only rocks.

It's probably therefore a little premature to declare we are not alone. But if you want to believe, perhaps the likelihood there's other life out there has increased a little. ®