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Lucky strike

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Science  14 Aug 2020:
Vol. 369, Issue 6505, pp. 760-765
DOI: 10.1126/science.369.6505.760

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Summary

On 23 April 2019, a space rock the size of a washing machine broke up in the skies over Aguas Zarcas, a village carved out of Costa Rica's rainforest. The falling fragments, which crashed through roofs and doghouses, set off a frenzy of hunting—for this rare meteorite soon became more valuable than gold. Meteorites are not uncommon: Every year, tens of thousands survive the plunge through Earth's atmosphere. But meteorite falls, witnessed strikes that take their name from where they land, are rare—just 1196 have been documented. And even among that exclusive group, there was something extraordinary about this particular meteorite: The dull stone was, as far as rocks go, practically alive. Aguas Zarcas, as the fragments would soon collectively be called, is a carbonaceous chondrite, a pristine remnant of the early Solar System. The vast majority of meteorites are lumps of stone or metal. But carbonaceous chondrites are rich in carbon—including organic molecules as complex as amino acids, the building blocks of proteins. They illustrate how chemical reactions in space give rise to complex precursors for life; some scientists even believe rocks like Aguas Zarcas gave life a nudge when they crashed into a barren Earth 4.5 billion years ago.

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