NASA finds carbon and water in asteroid samples from Osiris-Rex

12 Oct 2023

A view of the outside of the Osiris-Rex sample collector. Image: Erika Blumenfeld & Joseph Aebersold/NASA

Last month, the Osiris-Rex capsule brought home samples from Bennu, one of the many large near-Earth asteroids, after a seven-year mission in space.

NASA has said that the asteroid samples collected and brought back to Earth last month contain high amounts of carbon and water, a finding that could help scientists understand the origin of life on our planet.

In announcement from the Johnson Space Center in Houston yesterday (11 October), NASA revealed details from its preliminary assessment of the samples collected from the 4.5bn-year-old asteroid called Bennu by its Osiris-Rex mission.

First launched in 2016, the Osiris-Rex capsule returned to Earth last month after a seven-year journey across space to map and analyse Bennu, one of many large near-Earth asteroids that are categorised as being a potential Earth impactor.

“The Osiris-Rex sample is the biggest carbon-rich asteroid sample ever delivered to Earth and will help scientists investigate the origins of life on our own planet for generations to come,” said NASA administrator Bill Nelson.

“Almost everything we do at NASA seeks to answer questions about who we are and where we come from. NASA missions like Osiris-Rex will improve our understanding of asteroids that could threaten Earth while giving us a glimpse into what lies beyond.”

NASA said that while there is more work needed to be done to understand the nature of the carbon compounds found in the Bennu asteroid samples, the initial discovery “bodes well” for future analyses.

These analyses, NASA said, will offer insights into how our solar system was formed and how the “precursor materials” to life may have ended up on Earth. It will also help scientists decide what precautions are needed to be taken to avoid asteroids from colliding with Earth.

“The sample has made it back to Earth, but there is still so much science to come – science like we’ve never seen before,” Nelson added.

NASA is planning more asteroid-related missions, such as Psyche, which aims to reach an asteroid that is orbiting the sun between Mars and Jupiter. This spacecraft is expected to launch next month.

It has also been more than a year since NASA successfully tested its Double Asteroid Redirection Test, which managed to alter the orbit of an asteroid by smashing into it at high speed.

“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,” said Dante Lauretta, Osiris-Rex principal investigator, University of Arizona, Tucson.

According to Lauretta, the “bounty of carbon-rich material” and the abundant presence of water-bearing clay minerals found in the asteroid samples 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 neighbourhood but also the potential for life’s beginnings.”

The Osiris-Rex team will continue analysing the samples for the next two years. NASA said it will preserve 70pc of the sample at the Johnson Space Center for further research by scientists from all over the world and share the remaining with museums and universities for public display.

“With each revelation from Bennu, we draw closer to unravelling the mysteries of our cosmic heritage,” Lauretta added.

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Vish Gain is a journalist with Silicon Republic