Asteroid Bennu contains the building blocks of early life on Earth, says Nasa

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Nasa says asteroid Bennu contains early life building blocks. According to NASA, a pristine asteroid sample may have preserved a time capsule from the birth of our solar system, containing probable building blocks for life, and could be a time capsule from the formation of our solar system.

In the opinion of Nasa administrator Bill Nelson, the rocks and dust of Bennu are rich in carbon and contain significant amounts of water, which suggests that asteroids, like Bennu, may have brought the necessary ingredients for life to the Earth with them. Carbon makes up nearly 5% of the sample’s weight.

The sample exceeded our goal of 60 grams, making it the largest carbon-rich asteroid sample ever returned to Earth. “The carbon and water molecules are exactly what we were looking for. They play a crucial role in the formation of our planet. They will help us determine the origin of elements that may have led to life.

On September 24, a capsule containing a sample taken by Nasa’s OSIRIS-REx mission from the 4.5 billion-year-old near-Earth asteroid Bennu fell from the spacecraft and landed in Utah.

As a result, researchers have been working diligently to analyze the abundance of material just within the top of the canister, which is far greater than expected. 

In a live broadcast on Wednesday from Houston’s Johnson Space Center, Nasa presented the first look at the sample and its findings. This is the largest asteroid sample ever brought back to Earth.

When the scientists opened the canister, there was so much “bonus” material that they haven’t opened the bulk sample yet.

An extraterrestrial treasure chest

Using a scanning electron microscope, infrared measurements, and chemical element analyses, the science team examined some of the rocks and dust during the previous two weeks. 

They also used X-rays to generate a 3D model of one of the particles to determine its composition, revealing a “scientific treasure” of carbon and water.

In the first analysis, water was found in abundance in the form of hydrated clay minerals, and carbon molecules were found in both mineral and organic forms,” Nelson said.

In the fine-grained photos of the particles released by the researchers, water-bearing clay minerals were visible.

“That’s how we think water got to Earth,” Lauretta explained. It is because these clay minerals landed on Earth 4 billion years ago to 4 and a half billion years ago that our world is habitable, with oceans, lakes, rivers, and rain. In other words, we’re seeing how water has been incorporated into the solid material.”

Nasa says asteroid Bennu contains early life building blocks. In addition, Lauretta found iron oxide minerals called magnetite that react to magnetic fields, sulphide minerals, “a critical element for planetary evolution and biology,” and other minerals relevant to biological evolution.

The science team was thrilled to find organic materials and an abundance of carbon, which is crucial for all life, in the OSIRIS-REx sample, said Dr Daniel Glavin, a senior scientist at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Maryland.

“We’re just getting started, but we picked the right asteroid, and we brought back the right sample,” Glavin said. It’s an astrobiologist’s dream.”

The team will determine whether the building blocks of life evolved on Bennu to create peptides, or chains of amino acids that form proteins, Glavin said.

Meanwhile, Lauretta said “a whole treasure chest of extraterrestrial material” is still inside the canister.

What could be revealed by the sample

During OSIRIS-REx’s close approach to Bennu three years ago, the spacecraft extended a TAGSAM head and fired a blast of nitrogen gas at the asteroid. The gas explosion raised rocks and dust from 19 inches (50 centimetres) beneath the surface of the space rock. Detritus filled the TAGSAM head.

The TAGSAM also trapped fine-grained debris with its 24 surface contact pads.

A study of Bennu’s dust and rocks, both internal and exterior, could provide insight into its formation and evolution. As a result of these discoveries, Nasa will be able to better predict how it can divert an asteroid that may strike Earth in the future.

Since the launch of OSIRIS-REx in 2016, it has taken seven years to finally announce the capsule landing last month. This time has been anticipate for even longer by some. Her wait to view the sample and learn what it might reveal about our solar system has lasted almost 20 years. As part of the mission’s early development, she provided assistance.

NASA’s Johnson Space Center director Vanessa Wyche said her labs were prepared for whatever Bennu had in store. The scientists and engineers have been working together for years to develop specialized gloveboxes and tools to keep the asteroid material pristine and to curate the samples for researchers to study decades from now.”

Over the next two years, researchers will examine rocks and soil at Johnson Space Center in a specialised clean room. Additionally, the sample will be split up and distributed to other research facilities around the world, including collaborators on the OSIRIS-REx mission at the Canadian Space Agency and JAEA. About 70% of the sample will remain intact in storage so that future generations will be able to learn even more than they can now.

“Rocks tell stories,” Lauretta said. Our greatest mystery right now is, how do you go from mud to something alive? What is the timeframe for making that transition? It is our deepest desire to figure out why we are here in this universe and to make some progress towards that goal.”

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