NASA's 1st asteroid sample is rich in carbon and water, OSIRIS-REx team finds

The first looks at the extraterrestrial stuff are quite promising.

Bennu appears to have been the ideal target for NASA's inaugural mission to retrieve samples from asteroids.

Late this month, that mission, OSIRIS-REx, sent parts of the 500-meter-wide (1,650-foot) Bennu to Earth. During a live webcast event today (October 11), NASA presented the sample to the globe for the first time and summarized the initial analyses conducted on the off-Earth substance.

According to mission team members, those very early scientific results are encouraging and demonstrate that Bennu is rich in both water and chemicals containing carbon.

NASA Administrator Bill Nelson stated in a statement today that "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."

"Almost everything we do at NASA seeks to answer questions about who we are and where we come from," Nelson stated. "NASA projects such as OSIRIS-REx will provide us with a view into the beyond while also advancing our understanding of asteroids that pose a hazard to Earth. Even though the sample has returned to Earth, there is still a ton of undiscovered science tremendous be discovered."

Launched in September 2016, OSIRIS-REx reached Bennu in December 2018. Over the course of the following 22 months, the probe studied the space rock from orbit and looked for the best location to dive down and collect a sample.

October 2020 saw a significant amount of drama during that sample run when OSIRIS-REx descended down into Bennu's surface, which proved to be unexpectedly porous.

However, the probe returned with such a bounty that some asteroid dust and pebbles were able to escape into space due to a clogged gathering device. Even yet, OSIRIS-REx was able to contain the majority of the Bennu fragments in its sample container, and in May 2021 the probe started its journey toward Earth.

On September 24, the return capsule of OSIRIS-REx touched down in the northern Utah desert, concluding the voyage home. The sample was sent to NASA's Johnson Space Center (JSC) in Houston one day later, where it is currently undergoing processing, curation, and storage.

That work is just getting started. For example, the precise amount of material that OSIRIS-REx brought home is still unknown to the mission crew. They estimate it to be around 8.8 ounces (250 grams), which is far more than the 2.1 ounces (60 g) mission requirement. However, this estimate was made while the return capsule was still in orbit.

across the next several months and years, JSC will send portions of the Bennu sample to scholars all across the world, who will carefully examine it.

Among other things, their effort will identify the carbon molecules, which may provide insight into the origins of life on Earth. (Many scientists believe that collisions from carbon-rich asteroids, such as Bennu, provided the building elements of life on Earth eons ago.)

Furthermore, measuring Bennu will help us comprehend the origin and evolution of our cosmic backyard on a broader scale, according to mission team members. Bennu is a remnant of the planet-building epoch in our solar system.

Dante Lauretta, principal investigator for OSIRIS-REx at the University of Arizona, stated in the same statement, "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."

"The bounty of carbon-rich material and the abundant presence of water-bearing clay minerals are just the tip of the cosmic iceberg," he stated. "These findings, which are the result of years of devoted cooperation and state-of-the-art research, set us on a quest to comprehend not just our cosmic surroundings but also the possibility of life's origins. We are getting closer to solving the secrets of our cosmic ancestry with every revelation from Bennu."

That being said, the OSIRIS-REx spacecraft's voyage is far from done. The probe continues to fly in the direction of Apophis, another asteroid, even though its return capsule has returned to Earth. On an extended mission known as OSIRIS-APEX, OSIRIS-REx is slated to land on the space rock in 2029 and conduct close-up research there.