OSIRIS-REx asteroid samples hold the building blocks of life
NASA's OSIRIS-REx has begun to pay dividends as the space agency releases the first preliminary results of the sample return mission from the 4.5-billion-year-old asteroid Bennu, showing the presence of a high carbon content and water – the primary building blocks of life.
On September 24, 2023, NASA's Origins, Spectral Interpretation, Resource Identification and Security – Regolith Explorer (OSIRIS-REx) mission completed its primary objective as a sealed sample return capsule touched down at the US Department of Defense’s Utah Test and Training Range 80 miles (129 km) southwest of Salt Lake City.
Aboard it was 8.8 ounces (250 g) of rock and dust from the asteroid Bennu that was collected by the mothership in 2020. Or it might be more accurate to say that is held at least that much because NASA scientists were pleasantly surprised when they found that the somewhat sloppy collection system had left additional material outside of the collector head, canister lid, and base.
According to NASA Administrator Bill Nelson, the preliminary analysis of the samples shows it to be the biggest carbon-rich asteroid sample ever delivered to Earth. The hope is that this will improve our understanding of how life emerged on Earth, its possible presence elsewhere in the solar system, and of the composition of asteroids in general.
A complete study of the samples could take decades, so they are being handled very carefully using new clean rooms especially built for the asteroid mission. Disassembling the capsule took 10 days, with extra material slowing down the delicate operation. Currently the samples are being subjected to a scanning electron microscope, infrared measurements, X-ray diffraction, and chemical element analysis.
Only 30% of the sample will be analyzed over the next two years, the other 70% will be preserved for future research.
"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."