‘I’ll never forget’ a family of rare elements that may be the key to finding alien life
The discovery of rare, metallic elements in the form of arsenic and magnesium could provide a crucial clue to life’s origins.
The discovery could lead to a new approach to identifying the building blocks of life.
The elements were found in a volcanic rock called calicheng and, in the process, exposed to the intense radiation that occurred around a massive eruption.
It’s the first time a rare element has been detected at such an extremely high level in nature, said John Grigg, a professor at the University of Exeter’s Department of Earth Sciences and an author of the study.
“It’s something we’ve known about for a long time, but we didn’t really know how high it goes,” Grigg said.
“There are lots of people who’ve worked on this problem in the past and we just didn’t know how much they could go.”
“The calichends were very stable,” said Grigg.
“So the uranium, the gold, the nickel were very abundant in the rock.
The only thing that was very scarce was the aluminum.
“The key to doing this is understanding how the calicites were formed, what was going on during the eruption, and how those reactions are able to produce a lot of these metals.” “
Researchers say the discovery is important because it opens up the possibility of creating an early form of life, possibly on Mars or Jupiter. “
The key to doing this is understanding how the calicites were formed, what was going on during the eruption, and how those reactions are able to produce a lot of these metals.”
Researchers say the discovery is important because it opens up the possibility of creating an early form of life, possibly on Mars or Jupiter.
“I think that’s the most exciting thing in the paper, is that we now have the key for a future generation of astronomers,” Griggs said.
The study, published in the journal Nature Geoscience, was funded by the National Science Foundation, the Planetary Science Institute, the American Association for the Advancement of Science, the Canadian Institutes of Health Research, and the Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council of Canada.
“We can now say with a lot more certainty that we have some of the elements,” Grig said.
He said it could take decades to find and test more than 100,000 rare elements in a rock, because of the very high levels of radiation exposure during the caliceng eruption.
But it could also take decades longer to find, identify, and characterize the elements in calichen, because they’re much harder to detect in the rocks themselves.
“This is the first step,” Gritt said.
Grigg’s co-authors on the study are graduate students from the University College London, the University at Buffalo, and McGill University.
The research was supported by the British Antarctic Survey and the European Research Council.
Follow Stephanie Pappas on Twitter: @stephanieappas.