Blocks of life? NASA unveils model of 4.5 billion-year-old asteroid Bennu

NASA’s preliminary studies of the Bennu asteroid sample brought back to Earth reveal high carbon content and water, indicating the possibility of life on Earth. Announced at the Johnson Space Center, the discovery is part of the findings of the OSIRIS-REx mission. The sample will be analyzed in the coming years to gain insights into the formation of our solar system, the beginning of life on Earth, and the possibility of asteroid impacts. Credit: NASA

NASABennu’s asteroid sample indicates a high carbon content and water, indicating potential building blocks for life on Earth. This discovery, in part OSIRIS-REx The mission, which will be studied over many years, provides insights into the solar system and the origins of life.

Preliminary studies of the 4.5-billion-year-old Bennu asteroid sample show evidence of high carbon content and water collected in space and brought back to Earth by NASA. NASA made the announcement Wednesday from the Johnson Space Center in Houston, where leadership and scientists showed off the asteroid material for the first time since the September landing.

The discovery is part of an initial assessment by NASA’s OSIRIS-REx (Origin, Spectral Interpretation, Resource Identification and Conservation – Regolith Explorer) science team.

The OSIRIS-REx sample collector

Exterior view of the OSIRIS-REx sample collector. A sample object from the asteroid Bennu can be seen in the middle right. Preliminary analyzes of this material have found evidence of both carbon and water. Most of the model is located inside. Credit: NASA/Erika Blumenfeld & Joseph Aebersold

“The OSIRIS-REx model is the largest carbon-rich asteroid model ever delivered to Earth, and it will help scientists study the origins of life on our home planet for generations to come,” said NASA Administrator Bill Nelson. “Everything we do at NASA seeks to answer questions about who we are and where we came from. NASA missions like OSIRIS-REx improve our understanding of asteroids that threaten Earth while giving us a glimpse of what’s beyond. The sample has returned to Earth, but there’s much more science to come. – Science like we’ve never seen before.

More analysis and insight

Although more work is needed to understand the nature of the carbon compounds found, the initial finding bodes well for future analyzes of the asteroid sample. Secrets within the rocks and dust from the asteroid will provide insights into how our solar system formed, how life’s precursors may have been seeded on Earth, and what precautions should be taken. Avoid an asteroid collision on our home planet.

The OSIRIS REx model has the return canister lid removed

NASA curation team members along with Lockheed Martin recovery experts look on after successfully removing the sample return canister lid. Credit: NASA/Robert Markowitz

Bonus model and preliminary analysis

The OSIRIS-REx sample collection target is 60 g of asteroid material. NASA Johnson’s curation experts have spent 10 days so far working in new clean rooms built specifically for the mission. When the science vial lid was first opened, scientists discovered bonus asteroid material covering the outside of the collector head, vial lid, and base. The careful process of collecting the primary sample was slowed down by the presence of so many additional objects.

“Our labs are ready for what Bennu has in store for us,” said Vanessa Wyche, director of NASA Johnson. The prize can be read.”

NASA's OSIRIS-REx asteroid sample return mission

NASA’s OSIRIS-REx asteroid sample return mission. Credit: NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center

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

Implications and future investigations

“As we peer into the ancient secrets preserved within the dust and rocks of asteroid Bennu, we are opening a time capsule that provides deep insights into the origins of our solar system,” said Dante Lauretta, Principal Investigator of OSIRIS-REx University. Arizona, Tucson. “The bounty of carbon-rich material and the abundance of water-bearing clay minerals are only 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 environment, but also the possibility of the origin of life. In every manifestation of Bennu, we are part of our cosmic heritage. We are getting closer to unraveling the mysteries.

Asteroid Bennu Mosaic OSIRIS-REx

This mosaic of Bennu was created using more than two years of observations near the asteroid by NASA’s OSIRIS-REx spacecraft. Credit: NASA/Goddard/University of Arizona

For the next two years, the mission’s science team will continue to classify samples and perform the analysis necessary to achieve the mission’s science goals. NASA will preserve at least 70% of the sample at Johnson for further research by scientists around the world, including future generations of scientists. As part of OSIRIS-REx’s science program, a team of more than 200 scientists from around the world, including researchers from several US institutions and NASA partners, will investigate the properties of the regolith. Jaxa (Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency), CSA (Canadian Space Agency) and other scientists around the world. Additional samples will be delivered this fall to the Smithsonian Institution, Space Center Houston and the University of Arizona for public display.

Contributors and Mission Details

NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Maryland provides overall mission management, systems engineering, and safety and mission assurance for OSIRIS-REx. Lauretta, principal investigator, leads the science team and the mission’s science monitoring planning and data processing. Lockheed Martin Space in Littleton, Colorado, built the spacecraft, provided flight operations and was responsible for capsule recovery. Goddard and KinectX Aerospace are responsible for piloting the OSIRIS-REx spacecraft. Curation for OSIRIS-REx, including processing of the sample upon arrival at Earth, takes 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.

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