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New Meteorite Offers Clues About the Origins of Life on Earth

Image: Hilary Downes
Image: Hilary Downes

Opals are beautiful gemstones, supposed harbingers of bad luck, and perhaps the only thing to come out of Australia that won’t kill you. According to new research from a team of British researchers, however, they’re also adding some sweet bling to a meteorite recently found in Antarctica. Beyond looking cool, the opal-studded meteorite also offers new clues about the origins of life on Earth.

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The findings, unveiled today at the 2016 National Astronomy Meeting, are important because opals are associated with water—their structure contains up to 30 percent of the precious, life-forming substance. The discovery of the opal-laden meteorite adds further fuel for the theory that water found its way to Earth on the backs of asteroids.

“At top right is a backscattered electron image (the long thin dark object is opal). At bottom left is an image of silica concentrations in opal and surrounding meteoritic minerals. At top left is an image of oxygen concentrations in opal and surrounding minerals. At bottom right is an image nickel concentrations in opal and surrounding minerals.” (Image: Hilary Downes)
“At top right is a backscattered electron image (the long thin dark object is opal). At bottom left is an image of silica concentrations in opal and surrounding meteoritic minerals. At top left is an image of oxygen concentrations in opal and surrounding minerals. At bottom right is an image nickel concentrations in opal and surrounding minerals.” (Image: Hilary Downes)
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According to the Royal Astronomical Society, opal had previously only been found once in a meteorite. This new little guy, called EET 83309, has pieces of different meteorites embedded within it, which suggests that its parent asteroid was pummeled by other pieces of rock. Hilary Downes, a professor of geochemistry who led the findings, suggested one of those collisions introduced water ice to the asteroid, which then led to formation of the opal.

“This is more evidence that meteorites and asteroids can carry large amounts of water ice,” Downes said. “Although we rightly worry about the consequences of the impact of large asteroid, billions of years ago they may have brought the water to the Earth and helped it become the world teeming with life that we live in today.”

Scientists have long wondered how and when our water supply formed, and recent findings suggest that it actually arrived far earlier than originally thought. While the full story is still incomplete, evidence suggests water came from asteroids, not comets, which had also been put forth as a possible source.

Either way, EET 83309 now has the very sweet claim to fame of being far blingier than its meteorite cousins.

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[Royal Astronomical Society]

Sophie is a former news editor at Gizmodo.

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DISCUSSION

Opal, hydrated silica, isn’t even known for sure as to how it forms on this planet. Replacement minerals? In situ formation like a stalactite? Even of biological origin of sea critters? No one’s really sure, anyone...

So seems kind of cheeky for one single example from a meteorite to be the solution to the Earth-water “problem”. And of course with the above doubt, I’m not even sure it’s “opal”. Other than it is technically a hydrated silica, maybe with light diffraction or something (green/red/blue colors! Must be opal! Exactly like our own Earth opal, which we have little idea how forms!) Which could have a far different origin than such on Earth.

But I’m biased because I think all “our ocean’s water is from asteroids” and “our life was from asteroids” is non-parsimonious pseudo-scientific bunk. Needlessly complicated (since it MUST contain another water/life-forming planet/object) and adds another turtle to the all the way down.

I mean seriously, it’s easier to believe life and a hell of a lot of water arrived from some random asteroids (from where? The oort cloud? Jupiter?) than originating here? Apparently even if Planet X doesn’t exist, 4-billion-year-old now gone planet “shooting water and life and opal asteroids out of its ass” exists. Come on now.

Planetary scientists have discovered pieces of opal in a meteorite found in Antarctica, a result that demonstrates that meteorites delivered water ice to asteroids early in the history of the solar system.

Wow, okay so that’s how opals form—meteorites impacting with asteroids. And/or couple-mile wide asteroids with no significant geologic process to even begin to form any complex minerals.

That is not such a result (a transition from mineral state/chemistry to other, unless of course opal is just magic) from a meteorite delivering water ice to an asteroid. Which would be hard to do because a meteorite is an object that has come to Earth in an impact so on Earth’s surface for everymore in any general physics. But do meteorites instead then again get up, now or billions of years ago, and gift asteroids with opals? From natural rocket-ships made of hydrate silica fuel, in order to impact asteroids and so create gems such as opal, which then fall down on us to grant us our oceans?

Good links and well-written as far as diction, but come on Sophie. Jesus fucking Christ.