NASA unveils evidence in sample from asteroid delivered by Osiris-Rex. On September 24, 2023, a NASA spacecraft descended to Earth, carrying a valuable payload of material collected from an asteroid.
This mission was named Osiris-Rex, and it involved the collection of asteroid material from Bennu in 2020. The spacecraft then returned to Earth, releasing the capsule containing the asteroid samples into our atmosphere three weeks ago.
The contents of the capsule consist of fine black dust and small, coal-like rocks, which may appear unassuming at first glance. However, this handful of space rock has the potential to provide insights into the origins of Earth, the arrival of water on our planet, and the emergence of life.
During a NASA press conference held on October 11, Dr. Francis McCubbin hinted at the possibility of extended analysis and experimentation with the collected material through careful storage and preparation in the years to come.
"Scientists that aren't even born yet, (will be able to) answer questions about the universe using technology that has not even been invented," said the astromaterials curator at NASA's Johnson Space Center, Houston, where the Bennu sample is being stored.
While space materials in the form of meteorites occasionally make their way to Earth naturally, NASA possesses a substantial collection of meteorite samples that are believed to originate from asteroids. Although these samples offer valuable insights, their origin is often untraceable, limiting their scientific potential.
Moreover, meteorites are subject to contamination during their entry into Earth's atmosphere. In contrast, the Osiris-Rex mission provides pristine asteroid material, ensuring that any discoveries made from this sample are directly attributable to Bennu.
Notably, certain finer dust particles within the Bennu sample could not have formed meteorites and reached Earth independently. Retrieving this material was the only means to study such unique substances.
The Osiris-Rex mission is not the inaugural asteroid sample return effort, as Japan's space agency (Jaxa) executed Hayabusa 1 and 2 missions in 2010 and 2020. However, this marks the first U.S. mission to accomplish this feat, delivering a significantly larger quantity of material compared to the Hayabusa missions.
Osiris-Rex transported an estimated 250 grams of material, in contrast to Hayabusa 2's 5 grams. This ample sample size enables distribution to scientists worldwide and exhibition in museums for public appreciation. Additionally, the inclusion of larger rock fragments offers a unique opportunity to examine the arrangement of various minerals in substantial asteroid chunks, unlocking further scientific potential.
The sample gathered by the Osiris-Rex capsule
Bennu, classified as a "carbonaceous" or C-Type asteroid, is rich in carbon and volatile substances, such as water. These asteroids are considered relics from the early days of the solar system and hold critical clues to the formation of planets, including Earth.
The analysis of the primary sample has encountered some delays, primarily due to the overwhelming success of the collection process. The collected material overflowed the container within the return capsule, necessitating meticulous recovery of every grain before proceeding with the preparation of the primary sample.
Despite these challenges, initial analysis has yielded exciting findings. Researchers have detected water trapped within clay minerals from Bennu, a significant discovery. One hypothesis regarding the presence of water on Earth and other inner planets suggests that water was enclosed within clay minerals, which later consolidated into rocks forming the foundation of planets during the early stages of the solar system.
The sample contains a substantial amount of carbon, approximately 5% by weight, along with sulfur - both essential elements for life. Carbon is the primary ingredient in organic compounds vital for biological processes, while sulfur plays a crucial role in amino acids, the building blocks of proteins.
Asteroids like Bennu are believed to have delivered prebiotic compounds to Earth, contributing to the origins of life. Additionally, the presence of magnetite, an iron oxide, in the sample is associated with chemical reactions crucial to the evolution of life. Dr. Daniel Glavin, an Osiris-Rex sample analyst, aptly summarized, "We picked the right asteroid. And not only that, we brought back the right sample."
Beyond aiding in unraveling the mysteries of our planet's origin, the discovery of water on asteroids is set to play a pivotal role in our future endeavors in space. Water can be separated into hydrogen and oxygen, essential components of rocket fuel, ushering in the prospect of refueling stations in outer space - a concept transitioning from science fiction to reality.
In space travel, carrying excessive fuel on a rocket has limitations, making the idea of launching with minimal fuel and refilling in space increasingly attractive. Moreover, water serves a vital purpose in sustaining life within future lunar and Martian bases.
To ensure a reliable source of water in space and to develop extraction methods, understanding water reservoirs in asteroids becomes crucial. Asteroids, previously infamous for their potential role in the extinction of dinosaurs, are now taking the stage in a more positive light, contributing to humanity's past, present, and future in the cosmos.