Searching for the
origins of life

  • Friday, March 10, 2023

AMETEK CAMECA technology is helping cosmochemists determine from where Earth’s water – and maybe life itself – originated

The background

Supporting new theories about how Earth's oceans began

The origin of Earth’s abundant water resources is one of today’s most exciting scientific questions. It has been widely hypothesized that icy comets had bombarded Earth and delivered huge amounts of water in the first few million years of its existence; however, researchers at the University of Lorraine in France suggest that enstatite chondrite materials that accreted to form our planet may have supplied early Earth with water instead.

Answering the questions of cosmochemistry

Based in Gennevilliers, France, CAMECA is a world-leading supplier of microanalytical and metrology instrumentation for research and process control. Experts in Secondary Ion Mass Spectrometry (SIMS) techniques, CAMECA’s instruments measure elemental and isotopic composition for all elements from Hydrogen to Uranium and above, down to atomic resolution. This positioned CAMECA as a perfect partner to aim the search for the fingerprints of water in asteroid material.

The challenge

Uncovering the secrets of asteroids

Cosmochemists have long been forced to rely on studying meteorites to delve into the mysteries of Earth’s early existence: finding the source of hydrogen is one of the most important, but most challenging tasks in the search for the origin of oceans. Sending spacecraft to extract samples from asteroids is a newer, but expensive way to fill in knowledge gaps. In both cases, samples are irreplaceable, so the analysis needs to be correct first time, and reveal as much information as current technology will allow.

The solution

Unlocking the fingerprints of hydrogen

CAMECA supplied the University of Lorraine two specialized large-geometry secondary ion mass spectrometry instruments (LG-SIMS). These enabled researchers to analyze asteroid samples on a mineral-by-mineral basis, avoiding the terrestrial water contamination that occurs in standard mass spectrometry.

The results showed high levels of hydrogen in some of the minerals of the enstatite meteorite, giving important new clues as to how Earth’s water arrived here.

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