NASA sends Asteroid Bennu to the UK for researchers to study. Fragments from the asteroid that the US space agency, NASA, has labeled as the most dangerous rock in the Solar System have reached the UK for examination.
The small pieces of rock and dust from the object named Bennu will undergo a series of tests at the Natural History Museum, and the Open, Manchester, and Oxford universities.
"It is a modest contribution but sufficient," remarks NHM's Prof. Sara Russell. "One hundred milligrams of exquisite," she added.
The specimen was collected from the surface of the 500m-wide asteroid Bennu in 2020 by NASA's Osiris-Rex spacecraft. Then, two months ago, it was capsule-transported to the Utah desert.
The primary goal of the US agency is to gather information about the mountainous object, particularly due to its slim possibility of colliding with Earth in the next 300 years. Beyond this, the sample is expected to offer fresh insights into the formation of the Solar System 4.6 billion years ago.
This newfound understanding will be derived from the chemical composition of the Bennu material, which has undergone minimal changes over time.
Numerous scientists worldwide are actively participating in the research effort. For instance, the team at NHM possesses specialized knowledge in X-ray diffraction techniques (XRD).
These techniques will reveal the minerals' types and their respective quantities in the examined samples.
We're unusual in that we have an XRD set-up that allows us to do experiments that others maybe can't. We also have an incredible minerals collection which means we have all the standards and can do the comparisons that will help us with our calculations.- Dr. Ashley King
Dr. King has an array of instruments at his disposal in the West London institution. Additionally, he will utilize the largest XRD machine in the country, located at the Diamond Light Source in Harwell, Oxfordshire.
Comparable in size to a football stadium, Diamond generates intense X-ray beams, offering an advanced level of sensitivity and resolution. Preliminary analysis conducted at NASA, with Dr. King's assistance, revealed that the black, extraterrestrial material from Bennu is rich in carbon and water-laden minerals.
This discovery is promising. There is a hypothesis suggesting that asteroids with high carbon and water content, akin to Bennu, might have played a role in delivering essential components to the early Earth system. This process could have contributed to the presence of water in our oceans and the formation of compounds crucial for initiating life.
The 100mg provided to the UK might seem relatively small. The largest fragments measure less than 2mm in diameter, while some of the smallest pieces are barely discernible to the naked eye.
It's only a teaspoonful, but if you imagine a teaspoon of sugar and how many individual grains there are in that - we are going to be looking at this material grain by grain. It could be a lifetime of work ahead of us.- Prof. Sara Russell
NASA has a considerable reserve of the Bennu sample, although the exact quantity is uncertain. The Osiris-Rex sample container has not been fully opened yet, as an enclosing plate is proving difficult to unscrew. The agency's curation team at the Johnson Space Center in Texas is in the process of qualifying new tools to address this issue.
The 100mg allocated to the UK was obtained from the 70g that had inadvertently spilled from the container during the encapsulation process for the return to Earth. Interestingly, this 70g exceeds the minimum requirement for the mission when it was funded by 10g. Consequently, there is no urgency to release the remaining sample, which could potentially contribute an additional 200g or so to the total.
Scientists in the UK and around the globe anticipate sharing their initial findings at the Lunar and Planetary Science Conference (LPSC) scheduled for March. Two comprehensive overview papers are also anticipated to be published around the same time or shortly thereafter in the journal Meteoritics & Planetary Science.
NASA's plan is to archive the majority of the Bennu sample for the benefit of future generations. This preservation aims to provide material for scientists who may not have been born yet, to conduct research in laboratories that do not currently exist, using instrumentation that is yet to be invented.
Particles of the Asteroid Bennu in the Osiris-Rex capsule
In the preceding month, NASA officially affirmed the presence of water and carbon molecules in the sample derived from the asteroid Bennu. These components are fundamental building blocks for life, lending further support to the hypothesis that life on Earth may have originated from extraterrestrial sources.
During a press event at the Johnson Space Center in Houston, NASA administrator Bill Nelson stated that this marks the most substantial "carbon-rich asteroid sample ever returned to Earth." He highlighted that carbon constitutes nearly five percent of the sample's total weight and is present in both organic and mineral forms. Nelson also noted that the water is intricately embedded within the crystal structure of clay minerals.
At the London Museum, the researchers will concentrate on examining hydrogen isotopes in the water contained within Bennu to determine if any of them align with those present in Earth's oceans.
Furthermore, the sample will aid scientists in gaining insights into asteroids, enabling them to assess their potential threat to Earth. This knowledge will be essential for creating plans to fend off or lessen any potential threat that asteroids may pose in the future.
It doesn't sound like a lot of material, but it's plenty to work with. The museum is home to one of the world's leading meteorite collections, and the staff are well-used to handling small amounts of extremely precious materials from outer space.- Dr. Ashley King