NASA unveils historic asteroid model containing building blocks of life

NASA unveils historic asteroid model containing building blocks of life

(CNN) — NASA has finally revealed a beautiful asteroid model that could serve as a time capsule from the earliest days of our solar system.

The rocks and dust contain water and large amounts of carbon, NASA Administrator Bill Nelson said, suggesting that asteroids like Bennu may have provided Earth with the building blocks of life. The sample contains about 5% carbon by weight.

“The first analysis gives us samples that contain a lot of water in the form of hydrated clay minerals, and carbon in the form of minerals and organic molecules,” Nelson said. “More than our target of 60 grams, this is the largest sample of a carbon-rich asteroid that has not returned to Earth. Carbon and water molecules are the types of material we wanted to find. They are important components in the formation of our own planet. And they could help determine the origin of the elements that could form life.”

A sample of the 4.5-billion-year-old asteroid “Bennu” collected by NASA’s OSIRIS-REx mission in October 2020 arrived on Earth in a capsule on September 24, disembarking from the spacecraft and landing in the Utah desert.

A view of the exterior of the OSIRIS-REx sample collector with material from the asteroid Bennu can be seen at center right. Preliminary analysis of this material has found evidence of carbon and water. Most of the exhibition is located inside. (Erika Blumenfeld and Joseph Ebersold/NASA)

Since then, scientists have been hard at work studying the wealth of material on the surface of the container (much more than they expected) for preliminary analysis. The results of that analysis and a first look at the model were shared Wednesday during a NASA live broadcast from the agency’s Johnson Space Center in Houston. It is the largest sample of an asteroid to return to Earth.

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When the OSIRIS-REx spacecraft approached Bennu three years ago, it fired the touch-and-go sample acquisition mechanism, or TAGSAM, toward the asteroid and blasted nitrogen gas. The gas explosion kicked up rocks and dust from 50 centimeters below the surface of the space rock. The debris flew towards TAGSAM’s head.

TAGSAM consisted of 24 surface interaction platforms that touched the asteroid and trapped microscopic objects.

Together, dust and rocks collected from Bennu’s surface and interior will reveal the story of how the asteroid formed and evolved over time. This insight will shed light on the overall composition of the space rock, which will help NASA determine how to deflect future Earth-impacting asteroids.

From the launch of the OSIRIS-REx mission in 2016 to the capsule’s landing last month, it took seven years to make the long-awaited revelation. Some waited even longer for this moment. OSIRIS-REx Principal Investigator Dante Lauretta, who helped develop the mission in its early stages, waited nearly 20 years to see the sample and gain insights into our solar system.

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

Arzu Daniel

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