Researchers get first atomic resolution images of extraterrestrial molecules

Meteorites are fragments of asteroids or comets that reach the Earth's surface intact. They are the leftovers from the formation of the solar system and the molecules they carry provide clues to the history of this system. These clues are now a little easier to analyze, thanks to work by IBM Research in collaboration with a multinational team of researchers, published in the journal Meteoritics and Planetary Science.

Most primitive meteorites have remained largely unchanged since their formation billions of years ago. They are like time machines that give us access to the remote past of the emergence of the planets orbiting the Sun. Part of the cargo that meteorites carry with them is organic matter (molecules composed of carbon, not necessarily linked to living organisms), and this matter may have arrived on early Earth playing an important role in the origins of life.

IBM Research researchers have published a study of organic matter in meteorites using, for the first time, ultra-high-resolution atomic force microscopy (AFM). The team examined samples from the famous Murchison meteorite, which crashed in the small Australian town of the same name in September 1969, and took advantage of the AFM's unique abilities to visualize and identify individual molecules.

Their findings — obtained by a multinational group of researchers including the IBM team in Zurich, Switzerland — provide a proof of concept showing that AFM can resolve and identify individual molecules of meteoritic origin.

AFM's ability to identify an individual molecule means it can detect traces of substances that would be missed by other techniques. This becomes more important when the sample is scarce, as in the case of meteorites, and even more so for materials that return with space missions.

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Behind the first images of extraterrestrial molecules

About 12 years ago, the IBM team advanced the use of AFM to visualize individual molecules at atomic resolution. By studying samples related to crude oil and soot, which contain a wide diversity of molecules, they began to take advantage of AFM's sensitivity to a single molecule.

One of their hopes was to identify individual molecules of extraterrestrial origin, so they began looking for possible samples for investigation, as well as collaborators with meteorite expertise to help them get the right samples, interpret their results, and compare them to what they saw. knows about the molecules in meteorites through other techniques. This led them to Scott Sandford and Aaron Burton at NASA, Henderson Cleaves at the Tokyo Institute of Technology and Gregoire Danger at Aix-Marseille Université.

In their first experiments, they tried to study molecules sublimated directly from unprocessed meteorite dust. This was challenging because meteorites contain a relatively small amount of organic material that can be detected by AFM. However, they were able to do this with some molecules, giving them confidence that they could image extraterrestrial organic compounds with the technique.

Murchison meteorite molecules visualized using atomic force microscopy
Image: IBM Research

His longtime collaborators Diego Peña and Iago Pozo at the University of Santiago de Compostela developed a method for extracting the types of molecules that they believed they could image well in the AFM. The extractions were developed to target flat aromatic compounds as well as some straight chain hydrocarbon molecules. Through this optimized extraction process, they detected many other molecules, which were in agreement with the molecular structures determined by other techniques.

They also compared the results obtained from the AFM with state-of-the-art mass spectrometry data, for which Julien Maillard from Normandie University and Carlos Afonso from Aix-Marseille Université joined the project. Their results indicated that the molecules identified with the AFM are representative for the meteorite and the extracted fraction.

The next frontier of AFM

The study of organic molecules in the Murchison meteorite shows the AFM's high-resolution capabilities. So far, they haven't resolved new molecules into meteorites using AFM. However, because of its sensitivity at the individual molecule level, AFM could be used in the near future to reveal very rare molecules that have not yet been found in meteorite samples. There are also molecules that can only be resolved with the aid of AFM when conventional techniques alone are insufficient.

After this proof of concept, the team hopes to obtain larger samples from different meteorites to understand the effects of rising water and warming on their asteroids, and potentially samples returning from missions to other objects in our solar system — including asteroids and other surfaces. planets — to resolve individual molecules and advance our understanding of the compounds they carry. This could help paint a clearer picture of the origins of our solar system and life on Earth.

Via: IBM Research

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