Washington, August 18 (ANI): NASA scientists have discovered glycine, a fundamental building block of life, in samples of comet Wild 2 returned by NASA's Stardust spacecraft.
"Glycine is an amino acid used by living organisms to make proteins, and this is the first time an amino acid has been found in a comet," said Dr. Jamie Elsila of NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Maryland.
"Our discovery supports the theory that some of life's ingredients formed in space and were delivered to Earth long ago by meteorite and comet impacts," he added.
"The discovery of glycine in a comet supports the idea that the fundamental building blocks of life are prevalent in space, and strengthens the argument that life in the universe may be common rather than rare," said Dr. Carl Pilcher, Director of the NASA Astrobiology Institute, which co-funded the research.
Stardust passed through dense gas and dust surrounding the icy nucleus of Wild 2 on January 2, 2004.
As the spacecraft flew through this material, a special collection grid filled with aerogel - a novel sponge-like material that's more than 99 percent empty space - gently captured samples of the comet's gas and dust.
The grid was stowed in a capsule, which detached from the spacecraft and parachuted to Earth on January 15, 2006.
Since then, scientists around the world have been busy analyzing the samples to learn the secrets of comet formation and our solar system's history.
"We actually analyzed aluminum foil from the sides of tiny chambers that hold the aerogel in the collection grid," said Elsila.
"As gas molecules passed through the aerogel, some stuck to the foil. We spent two years testing and developing our equipment to make it accurate and sensitive enough to analyze such incredibly tiny samples," he added.
Earlier, preliminary analysis in the Goddard labs detected glycine in both the foil and a sample of the aerogel.
However, since glycine is used by terrestrial life, at first the team was unable to rule out contamination from sources on Earth.
The new research used isotopic analysis of the foil to rule out that possibility.
"We discovered that the Stardust-returned glycine has an extraterrestrial carbon isotope signature, indicating that it originated on the comet," said Elsila.
According to Dr. Daniel Glavin of NASA Goddard, "Based on the foil and aerogel results it is highly probable that the entire comet-exposed side of the Stardust sample collection grid is coated with glycine that formed in space." (ANI)