NASA has revealed that samples retrieved from the asteroid Bennu by its OSIRIS-REx probe are brimming with water and carbon-containing compounds.
This exciting announcement comes after the probe completed a return journey of 1.4 billion miles (2.3 billion km) from the asteroid last month, safely delivering a collection capsule bearing approximately 8.8 ounces (250g) of material which it gathered from Bennu in late 2020, to the Utah desert.
NASA’s Johnson Space Center in Houston has taken custody of these precious samples, which will soon be distributed to researchers worldwide for in-depth analysis. Scientists are keenly interested in the potential of this material to shed light on the origins of life on Earth.
Many scientists speculate that carbon-rich asteroids like Bennu may have deposited essential elements for organic life, making these samples invaluable.
Dante Lauretta, a planetary scientist from the University of Arizona and NASA’s principal investigator on this mission, expressed his perspective on Bennu, dubbing it “a time capsule that offers us profound insights into the origins of our solar system.”
Bennu had already surprised researchers with its unconventional characteristics. When the OSIRIS-REx probe initially approached the surface to collect a sample, they anticipated a rigid rock after orbiting the asteroid for 22 months to select the ideal location.
However, the surface proved to be remarkably porous. Instead of encountering resistance, the spacecraft started to sink into the surface, a daunting moment described by Lauretta as “frightening.”
The probe narrowly escaped Bennu’s consumption by activating its thrusters, resulting in a massive 26-foot (8m) crater – starkly contrasting the anticipated slight indentation.
This anomaly indicated that Bennu’s exterior particles were “so loosely packed and lightly bound to each other that they act more like a fluid than a solid.” This observation could significantly affect deflection strategies if an asteroid like Bennu threatens Earth.
Following the capsule’s return to Earth, the OSIRIS-REx probe has embarked on an extended journey to the asteroid Apophis, slated to reach its destination in 2029. Although no samples will be collected during this mission, the probe will spend 18 months capturing images and mapping Apophis.
Initially considered a potential threat for an Earth impact in 2068, Apophis is no longer considered a credible danger. Nonetheless, scientists aim to gain valuable insights into other asteroids of a similar type, which could pose a collision risk to our planet.