NASA: samples from asteroid contains seeds of life

A SpaceX Falcon Heavy rocket lifts off carrying a NASA spacecraft to investigate the Psyche asteroid from the Kennedy Space Center in Cape Canaveral, Florida, U.S., October 13, 2023. This is the first spacecraft to explore a metal-rich asteroid, which may be the leftover core of a protoplanet that began forming in the early solar system more than 4 billion years ago. REUTERS/Joe Skipper

NASA has unveiled the initial composition of the sample obtained by the OSIRIS-REx mission, marking the space agency’s successful endeavour to collect a fragment of rock from a distant asteroid. This sample, comprising approximately 100 to 250 grammes (3.5 to 8.8 ounces) of rocky space debris retrieved from the surface of asteroid Bennu, has been disclosed by scientists during a news conference at NASA’s Johnson Space Center in Houston last week.

The unveiling of this sample took place approximately two weeks after it re-entered Earth’s atmosphere on September 24th. Following a seven-year, 6.4 million kilometre (4 billion-mile) roundtrip journey, the sample capsule deployed its parachute and safely landed in the Utah desert. Subsequently, it was transported to the Johnson Space Center, where scientists commenced the analysis of its contents in search of signs of extraterrestrial life.

Notably, the space rock material contains water and carbon, being the largest carbon-rich asteroid sample ever brought back to Earth. Carbon and water molecules were precisely the elements the scientists were hoping to discover, being crucial in understanding the formation of our own planet and aiding us in tracing the origins of elements that could have contributed to the emergence of life.

The asteroid Bennu is of particular interest to scientists for what it may contain. The space rock it may contain the precursors to life on Earth. Earth’s water predates the planet itself and was likely delivered by asteroid and comet impacts. Yet, asteroids have potentially delivered more than just water; they may have carried the building blocks of life. Bennu is classified as a B-type asteroid, rich in carbon and potentially containing the primordial molecules that existed when life began on Earth.

Some of these essential building blocks, such as uracil, a nucleobase for RNA, were discovered on the asteroid Ryugu by Japan’s Hayabusa2 spacecraft, which returned with a rock sample in 2020. The scientists behind the OSIRIS-REx mission hope to uncover additional potential precursors for Earth’s biology within the Bennu sample.

The sample was collected after an arduous two-year search for a suitable landing site on Bennu’s rugged surface. Upon contact with the asteroid, OSIRIS-REx deployed a burst of nitrogen from its mechanism, not only to secure its landing but also to prevent the spacecraft from sinking into the asteroid. This manoeuver sent rocks and dust swirling around the craft, with some of the material safely stored in a canister aboard OSIRIS-REx. The spacecraft then conducted flyovers and ultimately departed the asteroid for Earth in May 2021.

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