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A beautiful asteroid sample that could act as a time capsule from the earliest days of our solar system has finally been revealed.
The rocks and dust contain water and large amounts of carbon, NASA Administrator Bill Nelson said, suggesting that asteroids may have provided Earth with the building blocks of life. According to Dr. Jason Dworkin, OSIRIS-REx project scientist at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Maryland, the sample is almost 5% carbon by weight.
“This is the largest carbon-rich asteroid sample ever returned to Earth, exceeding our target of 60 grams,” Nelson said. “Carbon and water molecules are the types of material we wanted to find. They are important components in the formation of our own planet. And they are going to help us determine the origin of elements that could have led to life.
Erika Blumenfeld & Joseph Aebersold/NASA
An exterior view of the OSIRIS-REx sample collector shows material from the asteroid Bennu, which can be seen at middle right. Preliminary analyzes of this material have found evidence of both carbon and water. Most of the model is located inside.
A 4.5-billion-year-old asteroid Bennu was collected from Earth by NASA’s OSIRIS-REx mission in October 2020. Came to earth in a capsule On September 24, the spacecraft disembarked and landed in the Utah desert.
Since then, scientists have been hard at work studying the wealth of material – More than they expected — at the top of the vial to perform a preliminary analysis. The results of that analysis and a first look at the model were shared during a live NASA broadcast from the agency’s Johnson Space Center in Houston on Wednesday. It is the largest sample of asteroid to return to Earth.
There was a lot of “bonus” material when the scientists opened the vial, and the team had yet to open the bulk sample.
Over the past two weeks, the science team has used a scanning electron microscope to analyze some of the rocks and dust, taking infrared measurements and conducting a chemical element analysis. They used X-rays to create a 3D model of one of the particles and reveal its composition, revealing a “scientific treasure trove” of carbon and water content, said OSIRIS-REx principal investigator Dante Lauretta.
“The first analysis shows the samples contain a lot of water in the form of hydrated clay minerals, and they contain carbon as minerals and organic molecules,” Nelson said.
The team shared detailed images of the particles revealing water-bearing clay minerals.
Preliminary analysis revealed some distinct elements in the Bennu asteroid sample.
“We think that’s how water got to Earth,” said Lauretta, who is also the University of Arizona Regents Professor of Planetary Sciences. “The reason Earth is a habitable world is that we have oceans, lakes, rivers, and rain because these clay minerals came down to Earth 4.5 billion years ago and made our world habitable. So we see the way water is incorporated into solid matter.
The analysis revealed sulfide minerals, “an important element for planetary evolution and biology,” iron oxide minerals called magnetic fields that respond to magnetic fields, and other minerals important to organic evolution, Lauretta said.
Dr. Daniel Glavin, OSIRIS-REx model investigator and senior scientist at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center, said the science team was excited to find a wealth of organic matter and carbon, an essential component of all life.
“We’re starting here, but we picked the right asteroid, and not only that, we brought back the right sample,” Clavin said. “This object is an astronomer’s dream.”
Going forward, the team will look to see how much chemistry has evolved in Bennu to determine whether the building blocks of life form peptides or the chains of amino acids that make up proteins, Clavin said.
A detailed particle analysis revealed carbonate minerals that resemble stars and organic matter in the image at right.
Meanwhile, what still awaits inside the canister is a “whole treasure trove of extraterrestrial material,” Lauretta said.
When the OSIRIS-REx spacecraft approached Bennu three years ago, it pointed the head of a touch-and-go sample acquisition mechanism, or TAGSAM, toward the asteroid and blasted nitrogen gas. The burst of gas lifted rocks and dust up to 19 inches (50 centimeters) below the surface of the space rock. The debris flowed into TAGSAM’s head.
TAGSAM consisted of 24 surface contact pads that touched the asteroid and trapped microscopic objects.
Removing the device from the grip ring is like removing a boot from a ski, Lauretta said. During removal, material slipped from the TAGSAM flap, a check valve designed to keep material inside the sample collector. After collecting the sample in 2020, some rocks were open and the flap was difficult to close. The rocks measured two centimeters at their longest, he added.
Over the next two weeks, the curation team will carefully dissect the TAGSAM head to arrive at a total specimen. Once they do that, the team hopes to have a good estimate of the sample’s total mass.
Dust and rocks collected from Bennu’s surface and its interior will together reveal the history of how the asteroid formed and evolved over time. These insights will shed light on the overall composition of the space rock, which will help NASA determine how to deflect an asteroid. Potential to impact Earth In future.
The much-anticipated revelation has been seven years in the making, from the OSIRIS-REx mission’s launch in 2016 to the capsule’s landing last month. Some were waiting for this moment even longer. Lauretta, who helped develop the mission in its early stages, waited nearly 20 years to see the sample and gain insights into our solar system.
“Our labs were ready for whatever Bennu had in store for us,” said Vanessa Wyche, director of NASA’s Johnson Space Center. “Scientists and engineers have worked side-by-side for years to develop special gloves and tools to keep asteroid objects neat and tidy samples, so researchers can study this precious gift of the cosmos now and decades from now.”
Scientists will spend the next two years studying the rocks and soil in a special clean room at the Johnson Space Center. The sample will be separated and sent to laboratories around the world, including OSIRIS-REx mission partners at the Canadian Space Agency and the Japanese Aerospace Exploration Agency. About 70% of the samples remain intact in storage, so future generations with better technology can learn more than is possible now.
“The rocks tell you a story,” Lauretta said. “The biggest mystery we face right now is how do you go from a ball of mud to something alive? When do you make that transition? The deep desire is that we’re going to make some progress in trying to figure out why we exist in this universe.