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What will asteroid Bennu samples reveal about the origins of life?

NASA’s OSIRIS-REx team is diligently working through the initial curation of samples retrieved from asteroid Bennu. 

Despite the process moving at a slower pace than initially expected, the delay comes as a positive surprise for the scientific community: the sample is significantly more abundant than anticipated. 

Abundant asteroid material 

As the science canister lid was removed earlier this week, researchers discovered more asteroid material than they expected. 

This prompted a careful and methodical start to disassembling the TAGSAM (Touch-and-Go Sample Acquisition Mechanism) head, where the majority of the Bennu material is stored.

“The very best ‘problem’ to have is that there is so much material, it’s taking longer than we expected to collect it,” said deputy OSIRIS-REx curation lead Christopher Snead of NASA’s Johnson Space Center. “There’s a lot of abundant material outside the TAGSAM head that’s interesting in its own right. It’s really spectacular to have all that material there.”

Quick-look analysis 

This abundant material has drawn keen interest from the scientists, with the first sample collected from outside the TAGSAM head currently undergoing initial analysis. 

This “quick-look” analysis is expected to shed light on the nature of the Bennu material and set expectations for the findings likely to emerge once the bulk sample is unveiled for study.

“We have all the microanalytical techniques that we can throw at this to really, really tear it apart, almost down to the atomic scale,” said Lindsay Keller, OSIRIS-REx sample analysis team member from Johnson.

Tools used for the analysis

The experts will use various instruments for the analysis, including a scanning electron microscope (SEM), infrared measurements, and x-ray diffraction (XRD). 

These instruments will provide invaluable data, offering insights into the chemical and morphological composition of the sample, the presence of hydrated minerals and organic-rich particles, and an inventory and potential proportion of different minerals present.

Revealing the rest of the sample

With a treasure trove of asteroid material in their hands, researchers anticipate that the forthcoming weeks will be busy as they carefully move the TAGSAM head into a specialized glovebox for disassembly. This intricate process aims to reveal the bulk sample within, providing a more comprehensive understanding of the collected material.

The OSIRIS-REx mission, the first of its kind to successfully collect samples from an asteroid, has garnered significant attention since delivering rocks and dust from asteroid Bennu to Earth on September 24, 2023. 

The pristine samples, originally collected in 2020, offer an unparalleled opportunity for scientists to peer back into the formative era of the Sun and planets approximately 4.5 billion years ago. 

Following its historic sample delivery, the spacecraft, now renamed OSIRIS-APEX (OSIRIS-Apophis Explorer), has embarked on a new mission to explore asteroid Apophis. 

What makes Bennu special?

Bennu is not just another asteroid. Its potential for scientific discovery is enormous.

Early solar system insights

Because Bennu is an ancient asteroid, scientists believe it has remained relatively unchanged since the early days of our solar system. 

Studying its composition can give researchers insight into the conditions of the early solar system and how planets like Earth formed. 

Additionally, because it’s rich in carbon, studying Bennu can also provide clues about the origins of life.


Asteroid Bennu is a carbonaceous asteroid in the Apollo group discovered by the LINEAR Project on September 11, 1999. It is a near-Earth object, which means it has an orbit that brings it close to our planet. 

Bennu has a roughly spheroidal shape, resembling a spinning top with a diameter of about 490 meters (1,600 feet).

May contain clues about the origins of life

Bennu is a B-type asteroid, which means it’s rich in carbon and other volatile materials. This makes it incredibly valuable for scientific study as it might contain organic molecules, amino acids, or other prebiotic molecules that are essential for life.

One of the reasons Bennu is of interest to scientists is that it has a relatively high probability (though still quite low in absolute terms) of impacting Earth in the late 22nd century. However, further observations and studies are required to refine these predictions.

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