The first analysis of a sample from the asteroid Bennu, which arrived on Earth in late September, shows high water and carbon content, suggesting that the building blocks of life on our planet may be found there, NASA said on Wednesday. “We are opening a time capsule that gives us deep insight into the origins of our solar system,” said OSIRIS-REc principal investigator Dante Lauretta.
A sample from the 4.5 billion-year-old near-Earth asteroid was collected in October 2020 by the mission NASA OSIRIS-REx. The material reached Earth on September 24, falling in a capsule from a spacecraft that approached our planet for this purpose, landing in the Utah desert in the USA. The mission’s goal was to collect 60 grams of material from the asteroid, but it managed to collect much more. This is the third and largest recovered asteroid sample to return to Earth for analysis, following two similar missions by the Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency (JAXA).
Like other asteroids, Bennu is a remnant from the formation of the solar system about 4.5 billion years ago. Composition asteroids has remained virtually unchanged since then, so they contain valuable clues about the origin and formation of planets like Earth.
When scientists first opened the capsule’s lid on September 26, there was so much “extra” material on the outside of the capsule that collecting it thoroughly made it difficult to secure the rock and dust from the sample container. Over the past two weeks, a team of scientists has been analyzing rocks and dust, taking infrared measurements and analyzing chemical elements. X-ray radiation was also used to create a 3D model of one of the particles.
“Key elements in the formation of our planet”
The first results of the analyzes were presented on Wednesday at a press conference at the Lyndon B. Johnson Space Flight Center in Huoston, Texas.
As the head of the US space agency, Bill Nelson, emphasized, “this is the largest carbon-rich asteroid sample ever brought to Earth.” – Carbon and water molecules are exactly the type of material we wanted to find. These are key elements in the formation of our planet. They will help us determine the origin of the elements that could have led to the emergence of life, Nelson said.
– The first analysis shows samples containing a lot of water in the form of clay minerals (hydrated aluminosilicates – ed.), as well as carbon in the form of minerals and organic particles – Nelson explained.
– Almost everything we do at NASA is about establishing who we are and where we come from. Missions like this improve our understanding of asteroids that could threaten Earth, while also offering us insight into what lies beyond. The sample has reached Earth, but there is still a lot of science ahead of us, said the head of NASA.
As Dante Lauretta, OSIRIS-REx principal investigator, said, “we believe this is how water got to Earth.” “Clay minerals landed on our planet four to four and a half billion years ago, making our world habitable,” he explained. During the analysis, Lauretta said, they also detected sulfides, which are “critical for planetary evolution and biology,” and iron oxides, which have strong magnetic properties, as well as other minerals that may be important from the point of view of organic evolution.
“We open the time capsule”
As Daniel Glavin, a sample analyst on the OSIRIS-REx mission, noted, “the team of scientists was excited to detect organic matter and a wealth of carbon, which is an essential element for the emergence of life.”
“We are opening a time capsule that gives us deep insight into the origins of our solar system,” Lauretta said.
Bennu is a small asteroid, measuring approximately 500 meters in diameter. It has rounded shapes and consists of rocks connected together by gravity. It is the smallest object ever orbited by a spacecraft. It was discovered in 1999.
This asteroid belongs to the group of near-Earth objects. Near Earth Objects), i.e. those that are at least 193 million kilometers away from Earth. It is also included in the category of potentially dangerous objects. Potentially Hazardous Asteroids). It includes celestial bodies that approach the Earth at a distance of less than 0.05 astronomical units (19.5 times greater than the distance to the Moon). Currently, there are over 2,200 such objects on the list kept by NASA
Bennu comes relatively close to Earth every six years. Scientists estimate that the probability of it hitting our planet is 1 in 2,700 at the end of the next century.
Main photo source: NASA/Erika Blumenfeld, Joseph Aebersold