Photo: NASA/Erika Blumenfeld & Joseph Aebersold
The world recently got its first glimpse into the capsule NASA’s OSIRIS-REx mission ferried back from asteroid Bennu, a celestial body 100 million miles away. The seven-year mission successfully returned a rock sample to Earth in September 2021, providing scientists with a unique opportunity to analyze the precious cargo without the risk of contamination from oxygen, moisture, or earthly bacteria.
“The carbon and water molecules are exactly the kinds of material that we wanted to find. They are crucial elements in the formation of our planet and will help us determine the origins that helped lead to life.” – NASA Administrator Bill Nelson.
The Unveiling of Bennu’s Secrets
During a public reveal, NASA Administrator Bill Nelson shared the initial findings from the sample analysis. The asteroid pebbles and particles contained water in the form of hydrated clay minerals, carbon, and organic molecules, with carbon making up 4.7 percent of the sample by weight.
The Implications of the Findings
Dante Lauretta, OSIRIS-REx principal investigator, highlighted the significance of carbon and explained the role of water-bearing clay minerals in making Earth a habitable planet. He suggested that these minerals landed on Earth approximately 4 to 4.5 billion years ago, likely contributing to the formation of oceans and lakes.
Lauretta also pointed out the presence of sulfur, an element critical for biology, and magnetite particles with potential implications for organic evolution. Daniel Glavin, the OSIRIS-REx sample analysis lead, further revealed that under UV light, the asteroid material exhibited fluorescence, indicating the presence of carbonate minerals and organic matter.
The Conservation and Study of the Sample
Nicole Lunning, a curation scientist, described the sample as fine dust and intermediate-sized particles, adding that it would be carefully divided into handling trays for further analysis. Over the next two years, approximately 230 scientists around the globe will work on the sample, and portions will go on public display at various institutions, including the Smithsonian and the University of Arizona.
Looking to the Future
As NASA continues its cosmos exploration, the agency’s Psyche probe is set to embark on a journey to a metal-rich asteroid. This mission will offer an unprecedented opportunity to study a near-Earth object that may be the remnant of a planet’s core that never fully formed.
Through missions like OSIRIS-REx and Psyche, NASA probes the mysteries of the oldest astronomical objects in our vicinity. These explorations offer the best chance to understand the solar system’s history and Earth’s early years, tackling some of the most profound questions about our origins and the formation of life.
As Makenzie Lystrup, director of Goddard Space Center, aptly put it at the event, “OSIRIS-REx aimed some of the biggest questions in exploration in science. How did our solar system form? How did life originate on Earth? It can’t get more exciting than that. The real journey begins now.”