The building blocks of life? NASA reveals a sample of the asteroid Bennu, 4.5 billion years old

Preliminary studies conducted by NASA on the asteroid Bennu sample, which was brought to Earth, revealed a high carbon and water content, indicating possible building blocks for life on Earth. The discovery, announced at Johnson Space Center, is part of the results of the OSIRIS-REx mission. The sample will be analyzed in the coming years to gain insight into the formation of our solar system, the beginnings of life on Earth, and the possibility of asteroid impacts. Credit: NASA

NASABennu asteroid sample indicates high carbon and water content, suggesting potential building blocks for life on Earth. This discovery is part of Osiris Rex The mission will be studied for years, providing insight into the solar system and the origins of life.

Preliminary studies of the 4.5 billion-year-old asteroid Bennu sample, collected in space and transported to Earth by NASA, show evidence of high carbon and water content, which together could indicate that the building blocks of life on Earth may be present in rocks. . . NASA announced the news Wednesday from its Johnson Space Center in Houston where leadership and scientists viewed the asteroid’s material for the first time since its landing in September.

The discovery was part of the initial evaluation of NASA’s OSIRIS-REx (Origins, Spectral Interpretation, Resource Identification and Security – Regolith Explorer) science team.

OSIRIS-REx sample collector

A view of the outside of the OSIRIS-REx sampler. A sample of material from asteroid Bennu 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. Image credit: NASA/Erika Blumenfeld and Joseph Aebersold

“The OSIRIS-REx sample is the largest carbon-rich asteroid sample ever delivered to Earth, and will help scientists investigate the origins of life on our planet for generations to come,” NASA Administrator Bill Nelson said. “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 them. The sample has returned to Earth, but There is still a lot of science to come – science that we have never seen before.

More analysis and insights

Although more work is needed to understand the nature of the carbon compounds present, the initial discovery bodes well for future analyzes of the asteroid sample. The secrets contained within the rocks and dust generated by the asteroid will be studied for decades to come, offering insight into how our solar system was formed, how the raw materials for life may have been seeded on Earth, and what precautions should be taken to avoid asteroids colliding with our home planet.

The OSIRIS REx sample return tray cover has been removed

Members of NASA’s processing team along with Lockheed Martin recovery specialists follow the successful removal of the sample return canister lid. Image credit: NASA/Robert Markowitz

Bonus sample and preliminary analysis

The target for OSIRIS-REx to collect samples was 60 grams of asteroid material. NASA Johnson processing experts, working in new clean rooms designed specifically for the mission, have spent 10 days so far carefully disassembling the sample return devices to get a glimpse of the sample collected inside. When the scientific canister lid was first opened, scientists discovered additional asteroid material covering the outside of the collector head, canister lid, and base. There was a lot of extra material which slowed down the delicate process of collecting and containing the initial sample.

“Our laboratories were ready for whatever Bennu had in store for us,” said NASA Johnson Administrator Vanessa Wyche. “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.”

NASA's OSIRIS-REx asteroid sample return mission

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

During the first two weeks, scientists conducted “at-a-glance” analyzes of that starting material, collecting images from scanning electron microscopy, infrared measurements, X-ray diffraction, and stoichiometric analysis. X-ray computed tomography was also used to produce a 3D computer model of one of the particles, highlighting its internal diversity. This early glimpse provided evidence of abundant carbon and water in the sample.

Implications and future investigations

“As we delve into ancient secrets preserved within the dust and rocks of asteroid Bennu, we are opening a time capsule that offers us profound insights into the origins of our solar system,” said Dante Lauretta, principal investigator for OSIRIS-REx at the University of California, California. Arizona, Tucson. “The abundance of carbon-rich materials 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, push us on a journey to understand not only our celestial neighborhood but also the possibilities for the beginnings of life. With all Inspired by Bennu, we are one step closer to unlocking the secrets of our cosmic heritage.

Asteroid Bennu Mosaic OSIRIS-REx

This mosaic of Bennu was created using observations made by NASA’s OSIRIS-REx spacecraft, which has been in close proximity to the asteroid for more than two years. Image source: NASA/Goddard/University of Arizona

Over the next two years, the mission’s scientific team will continue to characterize samples and perform the analysis necessary to achieve the mission’s scientific goals. NASA will retain at least 70% of the sample at Johnson for further research by scientists around the world, including future generations of scientists. As part of the OSIRIS-REx science program, a group of more than 200 scientists around the world will explore the properties of the regolith, including researchers from several US institutions and NASA partners. JAXA (Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency), the Canadian Space Agency (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 in Houston and the University of Arizona for public display.

Contributors and mission details

NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Maryland, provides comprehensive mission management, systems engineering, safety, and mission assurance for OSIRIS-REx. Loretta, the principal investigator, leads the science team and plans the science observation and data processing for the mission. Lockheed Martin Space in Littleton, Colorado, built the spacecraft, provided flight operations, and was responsible for recovering the capsule. Goddard and KinetX Aerospace were responsible for navigation of the OSIRIS-REx spacecraft. OSIRIS-REx processing, including sample processing upon its arrival to Earth, is now being conducted at NASA Johnson.

OSIRIS-REx is the third mission in NASA’s New Frontiers Program, which is 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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