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Images of extraterrestrial molecules now on display

AFM provides pictures of molecules from outer space for the first time

by Laura Howes
February 13, 2022 | A version of this story appeared in Volume 100, Issue 6


Atomic force microscopy images showing molecules isolated from a meteorite.
Credit: IBM Research
Atomic force microscopy can visualize individual molecules from a meteorite.

Meteorites are time machines, or so says Leo Gross of IBM Research in Zurich. When meteorites fall to Earth, he says, they bring molecules from long ago and far-off places in space. Wouldn’t it be cool to see those molecules with an atomic force microscope? That’s what Gross and his team have managed to do (Meteorit. Planet. Sci. 2022, DOI: 10.1111/maps.13784). Gross’s group has played a key role in using AFM to image molecules. To image the extraterrestrial compounds, however, the researchers first had to work out how best to extract the molecules from a meteorite sample, then deposit them on a surface so the tip of a supersensitive AFM could detect them. Although it didn’t identify any previously unknown extraterrestrial compounds, the team compared their technique with mass spectrometry analysis and found that it catches a representative population of the compounds carried by the meteorite. Having completed this proof of concept, Gross is excited to use it on more samples. AFM, he says, could help meterorite studies by detecting less-abundant molecules and those that can be hard to distinguish using other techniques.


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