NASA has revealed a pristine sample collected from a near-Earth asteroid

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An asteroid sample has finally been uncovered that could serve as a time capsule from the early days of our solar system.

Bill Nelson, NASA administrator, said the rocks and dust contain water and a large amount of carbon, suggesting that asteroids may have delivered the building blocks of life to Earth. The sample contains approximately 5% carbon by weight, making it one of the highest carbon concentrations ever studied in an asteroid, according to Dr. Jason Durkin, OSIRIS-REx project scientist at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Maryland.

“This is the largest carbon-rich asteroid sample ever returned to Earth, far exceeding our goal of 60 grams,” Nelson said. “Carbon and water molecules are exactly the types of materials we wanted to find. They are crucial elements in the formation of our planet. They will help us determine the origin of the elements that can lead to life.

Erika Blumenfeld and Joseph Aebersold/NASA

An outside view of the OSIRIS-REx sample collector shows material from the asteroid Bennu which can be seen at center right. Scientists have found evidence of both carbon and water in the elemental analysis of this substance. The bulk of the sample is located indoors.

The sample, collected from the 4.5 billion-year-old near-Earth asteroid Bennu in October 2020 by NASA’s OSIRIS-REx mission, He arrived on Earth in a capsule On September 24, he descended from the spacecraft and landed in the Utah desert.

Since then, scientists have put great effort into studying the wealth of materials. More than they expected — Just inside the top of the can for early analysis. The results of this analysis and a first look at the sample were shared during a live NASA broadcast from the agency’s Johnson Space Center in Houston on Wednesday. It is the largest asteroid sample ever returned to Earth.

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There was so much “extra” material when the scientists opened the can that the team had not yet opened the collected sample.

During the past two weeks, the scientific team analyzed some rocks and dust using a scanning electron microscope, took infrared measurements, and conducted chemical element analysis. They also used X-rays to create a 3D model of one of the particles to reveal its composition, revealing a “scientific treasure trove” of carbon and water content, said Dante Lauretta, principal investigator for OSIRIS-REx.

“The first analysis shows that the samples contain abundant water in the form of hydrated clay minerals, and they also contain carbon in the form of minerals and organic molecules,” Nelson said.

The team shared detailed images of the particles that reveal water-bearing clay minerals.


Preliminary analysis revealed some of the different elements present in the Bennu asteroid sample.

“This is how we think water got to Earth,” said Loretta, who is also a professor of planetary science at Arizona Regents University. “The reason Earth is a habitable world, and that we have oceans and lakes and rivers and rain, is because these clay minerals landed on Earth 4 billion years ago to 4 and a half billion years ago, making our world habitable. So we see the way water was incorporated.” In solid matter.

The analysis also revealed sulfide minerals, “a critical element for planetary evolution and biology,” iron oxide minerals called magnetite that interact with magnetic fields, and other minerals that may be important for organic evolution, Lauretta said.

Dr. Daniel Glavin, OSIRIS-REx sample analyst and chief scientist at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center, said the science team was excited to discover organic matter and a wealth of carbon, an essential element for all life.

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“We’re just getting started here, but we picked the right asteroid, and not only that, we brought back the right sample,” Glavin said. “These things are an astrobiologist’s dream.”

Going forward, Glavin said, the team will look to see how much chemistry evolved on Bennu to determine whether the building blocks of life created peptides, or chains of amino acids that make up proteins.


A detailed analysis of the particles revealed carbonate minerals, which look like the stars in the image on the right, as well as organic materials.

Meanwhile, still waiting inside the case is “a whole treasure chest of extraterrestrial material,” Laurita said.

When the OSIRIS-REx spacecraft approached Bennu three years ago, it extended the tip of its Touch-Based Sample Acquisition Mechanism, or TAGSAM, toward the asteroid and fired a blast of nitrogen gas. The gas explosion lifted rocks and dust from 19 inches (50 cm) below the surface of the space rock. This debris flowed into the TAGSAM head.

TAGSAM also contains 24 surface contact pads that contact the asteroid and trap fine materials.

The device was removed from the capture ring, like removing a ski boot, Loretta said. During removal, the material slipped out of the TAGSAM cap, a check valve designed to keep the material inside the sample collection device. He added that the lid had difficulty closing due to some rocks that kept it open after the sample was collected in 2020. The rocks are a few centimeters in size at most.

Over the next two weeks, the curation team will continue to carefully disassemble TAGSAM’s head to access the sample collected inside. Once this is done, the team expects to get a good estimate of the full mass of the sample.

Dust and rocks collected from Bennu’s surface and interior can reveal the history of how the asteroid formed and evolved over time. These insights will also shed light on the overall composition of the space rock, which could help NASA determine how it drifted off the asteroid, which has… The possibility of it colliding with the ground In the future.

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The long-awaited reveal took seven years, from the launch of the OSIRIS-REx mission in 2016 to the capsule’s landing last month. Some have looked forward to this moment even longer. Loretta, who helped develop the mission during its early stages, waited nearly 20 years to see the sample and glean insights it might reveal about our solar system.

“Our laboratories were ready for whatever Bennu had in store for us,” said Vanessa Wyche, director of NASA’s Johnson Space Center. “We’ve had scientists and engineers working side by side for years to develop glove boxes and specialized tools to keep asteroid material pure and to organize samples so that researchers now and decades from now can study this precious gift from the universe.”

Scientists will analyze rocks and soil over the next two years in a dedicated clean room inside the Johnson Space Center. The sample will also be split and sent to laboratories around the world, including OSIRIS-REx mission partners at the Canadian Space Agency and the Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency. About 70% of the sample will remain pure in storage, so future generations with better technology can learn more than is possible now.

“The rocks tell you a story,” Loretta said. “The greatest mystery we face now is, How do you go from a ball of clay to a living thing? When do you make that transition? Our deepest desire is that we will make some progress in trying to figure out why we are here in this universe.”

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