Once Upon an Asteroid. . . Samples from 4.5 Billion Year old Asteroid Bennu reveal water, carbon and sulfur – all essential to life

The carbon-rich materials in the sample are intriguing because asteroids like Bennu might have seeded Earth with the building blocks for life. The NASA mission that collected the samples was named Osiris-Rex — a shortening of Origins, Spectral Interpretation, Resource Identification and Security, Regolith Explorer.

Space.com reports that mission, OSIRIS-REx, delivered pieces of the 1,650-foot-wide (500 meters) Bennu to Earth late last month. NASA gave the world its first look at the sample today (Oct. 11) during a live webcast event, which also provided a rundown of the first analyses performed on the off-Earth material.

Those very early scientific returns are promising, showing that Bennu is rich in both water and carbon-containing compounds, mission team members said

OSIRIS-REx launched in September 2016 and arrived at Bennu in December 2018. The probe spent the next 22 months studying the space rock from orbit and searching for the right place to swoop down and grab a sample.

“But the probe emerged with a bounty — so much material that its collection mechanism got clogged, allowing some asteroid dirt and pebbles to escape into space. OSIRIS-REx still managed to secure most of the Bennu bits in its sample container. . . .”

This illustration shows NASA’s OSIRIS-REx spacecraft descending towards asteroid Bennu to collect a sample of the asteroid’s surface. NASA/Goddard/University of Arizona

The journey home wrapped up on Sept. 24, when OSIRIS-REx’s return capsule landed in the desert of northern Utah. A day later, the sample arrived at NASA’s Johnson Space Center (JSC) in Houston, where it’s being processed, curated and stored.

The NYT reports that OSIRIS is still on the move, “the spacecraft, now renamed OSIRIS-Apex — short for Origins, Spectral Interpretation, Resource Identification and Security-Apophis Explorer — will enter orbit around Apophis, “the 1,000-foot-wide asteroid that will fly within 20,000 miles of Earth in 2029.”

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