A new analysis of a meteorite that fell to Earth more than 40 years ago has revealed the presence of millions of organic compounds.
The Murchison meteorite landed in Australia in 1969, and had been pretty well-studied already.
But new analytic techniques such as high-resolution mass spectrometry have allowed scientists at the Helmholtz German Research Center for Environmental Health in Munich to examine its organic contentin much greater detail.
The team found signals representing more than 14,000 different elementary compositions. And, given the different ways in which organic molecules with the same composition can be arranged, they calculated that the meteorite should contain several million different organic chemicals.
The Murchison meteorite is believed to have originated from the earliest days of the solar system - perhaps even before the Sun formed 4.65 billion years ago.
The findings indicate that the primordial solar system contained a variety of organic chemicals that was probably even greater than the molecular diversity found on Earth.
The meteor probably passed through primordial clouds in the early solar system, picking up organic chemicals, the aurthors say.
They suggest that tracing the sequence of organic molecules in the meteorite may allow them to create a timeline for the formation and alteration of the molecules within it.
The study will be published in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.