Space rock fans can now gawp at NASA's first-ever sample collected from an asteroid, as a rocky fragment from asteroid Bennu goes on display at the National Museum of Natural History.
Launched in 2016, the Origins, Spectral Interpretation, Resource Identification, and Security-Regolith Explorer (OSIRIS-REx) probe successfully touched down briefly on asteroid Bennu in 2020, finding a loose collection of debris rather than a solid surface. OSIRIS-REx brought back a sample to Earth in late September, where it was taken to a specialized room to be opened in a painstaking process that required months of practice.
The team has since hit a bit of a snag, in that they cannot open the lid of the sample, meaning parts of it are still trapped inside. However, when scientists first opened up the outer lid of the capsule, they found "black dust and debris" coating the lid and the Touch-and-Go Sample Acquisition Mechanism (TAGSAM) – a lot of it. The team was also able to access part of the material contained within the TAGSAM and collect it, without removing the two fasteners that remain stuck.
One sample of the asteroid went on display at the National Museum of Natural History on Friday. It's hoped that studying the asteroid, which we already know is carbon-rich and contains water, we may find out about the potential role asteroids have played in delivering organic compounds to Earth. Data from the mission could also be used in missions to deflect potentially hazardous asteroids.
Bennu itself, weedy and safe as it might look in a glass case, is a potentially hazardous asteroid, with about a one in 1,750 chance of hitting Earth by the year 2300. The most likely date of impact, where the orbits are predicted to be closest, is September 24, 2182. On this date, there is a one in 2,700 chance of impact according to NASA, or around 0.037 percent. Though those odds are still low, perhaps it's best that we gather all the information we can about such asteroids just in case. Or bring it back piece by piece to lay in a museum, no longer a threat to life on Earth.