Bennu bounty: NASA releases first details from asteroid samples
Less than three weeks after samples from asteroid Bennu returned to Earth, NASA has revealed some of the first details from the cosmic cache.
The culmination of the “Origins, Spectral Interpretation, Resource Identification and Security – Regolith Explorer” mission — OSIRIS-REx, the samples returned to Earth via a capsule on Sept. 24 after their robotic collection in 2020. A day later, the sample return capsule was transported to NASA’s Johnson Space Center in Houston to begin the process of extraction and curation.
On Oct. 11, NASA said the initial preliminary assessment of the samples from the 4.5-billion-year-old asteroid show evidence of “high-carbon content and water,” which the agency said could indicate the building blocks of life may be found in the rocks and dust.
“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,” Dante Lauretta, OSIRIS-REx principal investigator at the University of Arizona, Tucson, said in a NASA news release. “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.”
NASA said the goal of the OSIRES-REx mission was to collect 60 grams of asteroid material. In the days following the collection of the sample, however, rock and dust was found to be overflowing from the sample container. Teams have estimated there to be at least 250 grams.
Once the sample return capsule was returned to Houston, engineers began the process of disassembling the hardware. NASA said when the science canister lid was first opened, there was “bonus asteroid material” covering the collector head, canister lid and base.
In fact, NASA said there was so much extra material, it slowed down the process of getting to the primary sample. The agency hopes to get to those samples soon, but scientists are working carefully to collect every grain of priceless material.
“Our labs were ready for whatever Bennu had in store for us,” said Vanessa Wyche, director of Johnson Space Center. “We’ve had scientists and engineers working side-by-side for years to develop specialized gloveboxes and tools to keep the asteroid material pristine and to curate the samples so researchers now and decades from now can study this precious gift from the cosmos.”
Some of the bonus material was used for the initial “first-look,” which included images from a scanning electron microscope, infrared measurements, an x-ray diffraction and chemical element analysis, NASA said.
NASA said the results suggest the Bennu samples include an abundance of carbon and water. However, the agency said more work will be needed to understand the nature of the compounds found.
Over the next two years, NASA said the science team will continue characterizing and analyzing the samples in order to meet the OSIRIS-REx’s science mission. Some 70% of the samples are slated to remain at Johnson Space Center for additional research by scientists worldwide as well as future generations of scientists.
According to NASA, the OSIRIS-REx team includes more than 200 scientists from around the world, including from many U.S. institutions, the Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency and Canadian Space Agency.
NASA also said some samples will be loaned later this fall to the Smithsonian Institution, Space Center Houston and the University of Arizona for public display.
Meanwhile, when the main OSIRIS-REx spacecraft deployed the sample return canister on Sept. 24, it made a quick diversion to miss Earth. Now renamed OSIRIS-APEX, the spacecraft is on a secondary mission, heading toward asteroid Apophis for an encounter in 2029.
Video courtesy of NASA
Derek Richardson has a degree in mass media, with an emphasis in contemporary journalism, from Washburn University in Topeka, Kansas. While at Washburn, he was the managing editor of the student run newspaper, the Washburn Review. He also has a website about human spaceflight called Orbital Velocity. You can find him on twitter @TheSpaceWriter.