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Asteroid Bennu samples give NASA new clues about the origins of life in the universe

NASA scientists engaged in a groundbreaking seven-year mission studying the ancient asteroid Bennu have revealed their preliminary findings, marking a potential breakthrough in understanding the origins of life on Earth. 

The initial data suggests that the sample collected from Bennu is remarkably rich in carbon, surpassing the carbon content in any other extraterrestrial sample. 

Potential life formation 

Dante Lauretta, head of the OSIRIS-REx asteroid return mission, reported that nearly five percent of the sample consists of carbon, making it the most carbon-rich material of its kind.

In addition to its carbon richness, the sample contains significant amounts of water in the form of hydrated minerals, adding another critical ingredient for potential life formation

Researchers speculate that asteroids like Bennu could have delivered these life-building components to Earth billions of years ago, potentially influencing the processes that led to the emergence of life on our planet. 

“We’re still unraveling the complex organic chemistry, but it looks promising to really understand: Did these carbon-rich asteroids deliver fundamental molecules that may have gone on to contribute to the origin of life?” Laretta said.

Mysterious stone on asteroid Bennu

The scientists made another intriguing discovery within the samples: a light-colored triangular stone. Lauretta characterized it as a “head-scratcher,” leaving researchers eager to uncover chemical building blocks of life, such as sugars, fats, or amino acids, within the samples. 

Although the team has not yet published its results in a scientific journal, detailed findings on organic molecular composition are expected soon.

Despite these promising developments, researchers face a significant challenge in opening the sample canister containing the primary sample collected from Bennu. Two out of the 35 fasteners securing the canister are refusing to open. Special tools are being developed to address this issue, and NASA plans to attempt opening the canister in the new year.

Asteroid Bennu delivers valuable insights

Despite this setback, researchers remain optimistic about the valuable insights the asteroid samples may offer regarding the origins of life on Earth. 

The team is particularly eager to examine the role of asteroids in delivering key components for life’s formation and understanding the potential contributions of these extraterrestrial bodies to Earth’s evolutionary history.

More about asteroid Bennu

Asteroid Bennu, officially designated as 101955 Bennu, is a near-Earth object that is particularly interesting to scientists for several reasons.

Discovery and orbit

Bennu was discovered in 1999 and is classified as a B-type asteroid, which means it’s rich in carbon and other volatile materials. It orbits the Sun every 1.2 years and occasionally comes close to Earth, making it a potentially hazardous object.

OSIRIS-REx Mission

NASA’s OSIRIS-REx spacecraft was launched in 2016 to study Bennu up close. The mission aimed to collect samples from the asteroid’s surface and return them to Earth for detailed analysis. 

This was part of an effort to understand the early solar system’s formation and the role asteroids like Bennu may have played in delivering organic compounds to Earth.

Physical characteristics

Bennu is roughly spherical, with a diameter of about 490 meters. It has a rough surface littered with boulders and few smooth areas, making the OSIRIS-REx mission’s sample collection a challenging task.

Asteroid Bennu is a potential hazard

Although Bennu is not an immediate threat to Earth, its orbit intersects with Earth’s, and there is a small chance (about 1 in 2,700) it could impact our planet late in the 22nd century. 

Studying Bennu helps scientists understand the characteristics of potentially hazardous asteroids and develop strategies for planetary defense.

In summary, the study of Bennu can provide valuable insights into the early solar system, the materials that formed planets, and the origin of organic molecules that could lead to life. The samples from OSIRIS-REx contain a treasure trove of information.


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