June 20, 2024

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Scientists take first look at debris from space and find carbon and water (and it’s promising)

Scientists take first look at debris from space and find carbon and water (and it’s promising)

Together, these gently suggest that the gravel — and therefore the asteroid it comes from as well — contains the essential elements for life as we know it here on Earth.

NASA announced this after researchers got a first look at debris collected by the OSIRIS-REx space probe on the asteroid Bennu in 2020 and recently returned to Earth after a long space journey. A comprehensive analysis of the material is expected to take several years. But curious and impatient NASA scientists have already been putting the material through a cursory examination in recent weeks. This now shows that the gravel is rich in carbon. Abundant water-bearing clay minerals have also been found in the gravel.

More than we could hope for
In addition, researchers must conclude that OSIRIS-REx has given them more than they bargained for. The goal was to collect about 60 grams of material on Bennu. But once the researchers opened the capsule, they found additional material. So much so that securing the sample took much longer than planned.

“Our laboratories were ready to receive what Benno had to offer,” confirms Vanessa Vecchi, the center’s director. Johnson Space CenterWhere the monster is currently located. She points out that before the sample arrived, scientists and engineers worked side by side for years on the tools needed to extract the sample from the capsule and secure it without any damage. “So scientists can study this precious gift from the universe now and in the decades to come.”

To live
Of course, what these scientists will find in the future remains anyone’s guess. But the fact that the sample is rich in carbon and water is really promising. Because it suggests that debris – and by extension asteroid Bennu – may serve as the building blocks for life as we know it here on Earth. If researchers do find those building blocks in the debris, it will of course provide further insight into the formation of this asteroid. But not only that; Such a discovery may also have implications for our understanding of the origins of life here on Earth.

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How does this work exactly?
Billions of years ago, life appeared on our planet. That life is made possible in part by the right conditions and the presence of the so-called building blocks of life. Think about water, but also carbon, for example. How these essential elements got here on Earth is a bit of a mystery. But some scientists believe that asteroids rich in carbon and water have something to do with it. These asteroids were supposed to collide with the young Earth, providing the building blocks for life. By analyzing materials from Bennu, researchers hope they can further test this theory and thus gain greater clarity about how life arose here on Earth.

Old and pure
The fact that Bennu is particularly suitable for such research has to do with the fact that this asteroid dates back to the early years of our solar system. Bennu is estimated to be about 4.5 billion years old! What makes the asteroid even more valuable is that it appears to have not changed much in those 4.5 billion years. Researchers believe that this is a time capsule that can reveal with complete accuracy the materials that asteroids contained in the first years of Earth’s existence, when it was not yet possible to find life here. “The sample collected by OSIRIS-REx is the largest carbon-rich asteroid sample ever delivered to Earth, and will help scientists study the origins of life on our planet,” promised NASA CEO Bill Nelson.

On the right you see some material from the asteroid Bennu. This is an additional substance located outside the capsule. The lion’s share of the sample is in the capsule you see here. Image: NASA/Erika Blumenfeld and Joseph Aebersold.

This remarkable research will not only be carried out in the coming years Johnson Space Center take place. NASA decided to distribute about 30 percent of the sample to scientists around the world. Part of it will also be preserved for future generations of scientists who may reach different conclusions based on the same sample using currently unimaginable analysis techniques. “The presence of carbon-rich materials and the abundance of water-containing clay minerals is just the tip of the iceberg,” said lead researcher Dante Lauretta. “The journey toward a better understanding of our cosmic neighborhood and the origins of life has only just begun.”

Did you know…
…Is there a possibility that the asteroid Bennu will collide with Earth between now and the year 2300? Fortunately, thanks to OSIRIS-REx, we know we don’t have to worry about this; The chance is really very small!