Less than a day after opening the OSIRIS-Rex sample collected from asteroid Bennu, NASA has released the first results, reporting the sample is high in carbon, as well as containing significant water. More detailed analyses will investigate the molecules in which these two vital components for life are combined.
Science is usually a slow process. Efforts to hurry it too much frequently lead to disastrous miscalculations. Sometimes, however, we get results within hours – although in this case, it took decades of pre-launch planning, a seven-year mission to the asteroid Bennu and back, and two weeks from landing to the canister’s opening.
“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,” NASA Administrator Bill Nelson said in a statement. “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. The sample has made it back to Earth, but there is still so much science to come – science like we’ve never seen before.”
The OSIRIS-Rex mission visited Bennu and sent back the canister with the intention of collecting just 60 grams (2.1 ounces) of asteroid. That may sound like a paltry return, but it would be enough to keep many teams busy for years to come. By comparison, the Hayabusa2 mission returned from Ryugu with just 5.4 grams (0.19 ounces), which have already been studied in thousands of scientific papers, including the finding that it holds vitamin B3 and one of the nucleotide bases for RNA.
Moreover, when NASA opened the OSIRIS-Rex return capsule within a sealed container they were delighted to discover “The very best ‘problem’” in the form of more material than intended.
It was planned that 30 percent of the sample would be analyzed by more than 200 scientists over the next two years. The rest would be set aside for either advances in techniques, or to address questions that may arise out of future rounds of research. Every scrap of extra material makes that allocation easier.
“Our labs were ready for whatever Bennu had in store for us,” said Vanessa Wyche, director, NASA Johnson. “We’ve had scientists and engineers working side-by-side for years to develop specialized gloveboxes and tools to keep the asteroid material pristine and to curate the samples so researchers now and decades from now can study this precious gift from the cosmos.”
Bennu happens to be one of the most threatening asteroids to Earth with a more than 1 in 2,000 chance of hitting us in 2182 or the century after. The fact that its orbit brings it so close to Earth was one reason to choose it as a target. However, it was selected primarily because it is considered to be a particularly unmodified carbonaceous asteroid, offering access to an almost pristine sample of the materials from which the inner Solar System formed.