Science & Technology

This Tiny World Beyond Pluto Has the Building Blocks of Life

A little world far out in the solar system has the very building blocks of life on its surface. The object, MU69 (nicknamed Ultima Thule by NASA) includes not only water but also organic molecules — molecules that are common in biological and non-biological processes. While life as we know it doesn't exist on MU69, the find shows that the ingredients of life are everywhere.

New Horizons Visit

The New Horizons spacecraft, which visited Pluto in 2015, swung by MU69 on New Year's Day of this year. It was only a quick zip past the small world, but in that time, the spacecraft took a bunch of pictures and gathered a lot of scientific data.

New Horizons is very far away from Earth, so its information trickles back in small packets of data. Over time, scientists assemble that to draw conclusions about MU69 — where it came from, what it contains, and what it means for life on Earth.

With this new find, MU69 has become really important to us. To be sure, the little world is very far away, residing in a cloud of icy objects called the Kuiper Belt that includes Pluto and is located several dozen times further from the sun than Earth. Icy objects like these might have brought life to our planet billions of years ago, so studying MU69 may tell us more about the origins of life itself.

Related Video: See Photos of the Most Distant Object Ever Explored

Mu69 Isn't Alone

But don't think MU69 is the only little world with organic materials — it's far from it. Scientists have found organics in many locations in the solar system. The hothouse planet Mercury, frozen and windswept Mars, the icy and water-spurting moon of Enceladus near Saturn, and even a little comet called 67P/Churyumov–Gerasimenko all have organic molecules.

But the story of life's origin is complicated, as 67P showed us a few years ago when the Rosetta mission orbited the comet. Rosetta discovered water on 67P that was different than the water on Earth. Specifically, 67P contains different isotopes (types) of hydrogen molecules than the water on our planet. So it's clear that comets in 67P's family didn't bring water to Earth. The big mystery is, which ones did?

This means that the hunt for life isn't even over in our solar system. Scientists, in fact, are pushing on to Mars to see if there is any sign of past biological life. The NASA Curiosity rover has scoured the surface since 2012 for any signs of habitable environments. Coming up soon (in 2020) are the European Rosalind Franklin ExoMars rover and NASA's Mars 2020 rover, which will look for organic molecules and other signs of life itself.

So keep a sharp eye on our spacecraft. Almost every year, they're bringing us closer to understanding where life came from — where we came from — and under what conditions life will arise. Who knows? Someday, they may find alien microbes on some nearby planet or moon.

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The Vatican has an astronomical observatory, and its astronomers get some bizarre questions. Read their answers in "Would You Baptize an Extraterrestrial?: . . . and Other Questions from the Astronomers' In-box at the Vatican Observatory" by Guy Consolmagno, SJ and Paul Mueller, SJ. We handpick reading recommendations we think you may like. If you choose to make a purchase, Curiosity will get a share of the sale.

Written by Elizabeth Howell March 22, 2019

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