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  • Satellite Evolution Group

NASA’s Bennu Asteroid sample contains carbon and water


A view of the outside of the OSIRIS-REx sample collector. Sample material from asteroid Bennu can be seen on the middle right. Scientists have found evidence of both carbon and water in initial analysis of this material. The bulk of the sample is located inside. Photo: NASA/Erika Blumenfeld & Joseph Aebersold
A view of the outside of the OSIRIS-REx sample collector. Sample material from asteroid Bennu can be seen on the middle right. Scientists have found evidence of both carbon and water in initial analysis of this material. The bulk of the sample is located inside. Photo: NASA/Erika Blumenfeld & Joseph Aebersold

Initial studies of the 4.5-billion-year-old asteroid Bennu sample collected in space and brought to Earth by NASA show evidence of high-carbon content and water, which together could indicate the building blocks of life on Earth may be found in the rock. NASA made the news Wednesday from its Johnson Space Center in Houston where leadership and scientists showed off the asteroid material for the first time since it landed in September.


This finding was part of a preliminary assessment of NASA’s OSIRIS-REx (Origins, Spectral Interpretation, Resource Identification and Security – Regolith Explorer) science team.


“The OSIRIS-REx sample is the biggest carbon-rich asteroid sample ever delivered to Earth and will help scientists investigate the origins of life on our own planet for generations to come,” said NASA Administrator Bill Nelson. “Almost everything we do at NASA seeks to answer questions about who we are and where we come from. NASA missions like OSIRIS-REx will improve our understanding of asteroids that could threaten Earth while giving us a glimpse into what lies beyond. The sample has made it back to Earth, but there is still so much science to come – science like we’ve never seen before.”


Although more work is needed to understand the nature of the carbon compounds found, the initial discovery bodes well for future analyses of the asteroid sample. The secrets held within the rocks and dust from the asteroid will be studied for decades to come, offering insights into how our solar system was formed, how the precursor materials to life may have been seeded on Earth, and what precautions need to be taken to avoid asteroid collisions with our home planet.


Bonus sample material

The goal of the OSIRIS-REx sample collection was 60 grams of asteroid material. Curation experts at NASA Johnson, working in new clean rooms built especially for the mission, have spent 10 days so far carefully disassembling the sample return hardware to obtain a glimpse at the bulk sample within. When the science canister lid was first opened, scientists discovered bonus asteroid material covering the outside of the collector head, canister lid, and base. There was so much extra material it slowed down the careful process of collecting and containing the primary sample.


“Our labs were ready for whatever Bennu had in store for us,” said Vanessa Wyche, director, NASA Johnson. “We’ve had scientists and engineers working side-by-side for years to develop specialized gloveboxes and tools to keep the asteroid material pristine and to curate the samples so researchers now and decades from now can study this precious gift from the cosmos.”


Within the first two weeks, scientists performed “quick-look” analyses of that initial material, collecting images from a scanning electron microscope, infrared measurements, X-ray diffraction, and chemical element analysis. X-ray computed tomography was also used to produce a 3D computer model of one of the particles, highlighting its diverse interior. This early glimpse provided the evidence of abundant carbon and water in the sample.


“As we peer into the ancient secrets preserved within the dust and rocks of asteroid Bennu, we are unlocking a time capsule that offers us profound insights into the origins of our solar system,” said Dante Lauretta, OSIRIS-REx principal investigator, University of Arizona, Tucson. “The bounty of carbon-rich material and the abundant presence of water-bearing clay minerals are just the tip of the cosmic iceberg. These discoveries, made possible through years of dedicated collaboration and cutting-edge science, propel us on a journey to understand not only our celestial neighborhood but also the potential for life’s beginnings. With each revelation from Bennu, we draw closer to unraveling the mysteries of our cosmic heritage.”


For the next two years, the mission’s science team will continue characterizing the samples and conduct the analysis needed to meet the mission’s science goals. NASA will preserve at least 70% of the sample at Johnson for further research by scientists worldwide, including future generations of scientists. As part of OSIRIS-REx’s science program, a cohort of more than 200 scientists around the world will explore the regolith’s properties, including researchers from many U.S. institutions, NASA partners JAXA (Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency), CSA (Canadian Space Agency), and other scientists from around the world. Additional samples will also be loaned later this fall to the Smithsonian Institution, Space Center Houston, and the University of Arizona for public display.


NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Maryland, provides overall mission management, systems engineering, and the safety and mission assurance for OSIRIS-REx. Lauretta, the principal investigator, leads the science team and the mission’s science observation planning and data processing. Lockheed Martin Space in Littleton, Colorado, built the spacecraft, provided flight operations, and was responsible for capsule recovery. Goddard and KinetX Aerospace were responsible for navigating the OSIRIS-REx spacecraft. Curation for OSIRIS-REx, including processing the sample when it arrived on Earth, is taking place at NASA Johnson.


OSIRIS-REx is the third mission in NASA’s New Frontiers Program, managed by NASA’s Marshall Space Flight Center in Huntsville, Alabama, for the Science Mission Directorate at NASA Headquarters in Washington.


Find more information about NASA’s OSIRIS-REx mission at: https://www.nasa.gov/osiris-rex

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