Bad Astronomy

I for one welcome our new ant overlords

It’s rare you get to use that quotation in perfect context… but it’ll be clear in a sec why.

One piece of the Tagish Lake meteorite
The Tagish Lake meteorite is a fantastic scientific specimen. In 2000, a brilliant fireball was seen over Canada, and soon thereafter several fragments of the meteorite were found sitting on top of the ice of the frozen Tagish Lake in British Columbia. The beauty of this find is that the chunks of extraterrestrial material were untouched by human hands and found relatively unmixed with earthly material. This made it a pristine example of conditions in space, and an object of intensive study by scientists.

The BBC news has just reported that the meteorite contains an unusually high level of formic acid compared to other meteorites. That’s interesting! Formic acid is an organic compound, a carbon-based acid (formula CH2O2). It also can be used to convert uracil to thymine. These are nucleobases in RNA and DNA, respectively, and it’s possible formic acid helped along the RNA molecules used by life in a primitive Earth to become DNA. I don’t know how likely that is, but it’s interesting.

We’ve known that meteorites can contain complex organic molecules, including amino acids, and it’s speculated that meteoric bombardment of young Earth may have given our planet the ingredients it needed to get life started. Whether formic acid in meteorites helped or not is not clear; formic acid forms easily enough on Earth without us getting pummeled by space rocks.

In fact, formic acid is found in ant stings (the name comes from the Latin formica, or ant). And thus the title of this post (it was that or “Shoot the antennae! They’re helpless without them!”, a quotation I’ll leave it to my readers to identify). So we know it’s easy to make. But still, it’s a wondrous thing to see the building blocks of life literally falling on us from space. That means that these ingredients we need are common in the solar system, and this implies perhaps that life itself forms with alacrity given the right conditions. And we know that planets form with gusto around other stars, too.

How common is life in space? We still don’t know. But maybe soon we will.

Tip o’ the giant ant thorax to Wil. Yes, Fwhil Fwheaton. Tagish Lake meteorite image from Mike Zolensky/NASA.