NASA Unveils Scientific Discoveries from Asteroid

The agency announced that the Bennu asteroid sample contained carbon and water

By Leah Barnard, Guest Writer

Last Wednesday, NASA announced the initial groundbreaking scientific findings from their sample of the asteroid Bennu, which was brought back to Earth in September. 

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Sample material collected from the Bennu asteroid contained elements which suggested that asteroids provided components of life to Earth.

Bennu, a carbonaceous asteroid, was discovered in 1999 by the Lincoln Near-Earth Asteroid Research project. Due to its proximity to Earth and intriguing characteristics, NASA began the OSIRIS-REx mission in 2011 to explore the asteroid. Lockheed Martin Space, an aerospace company based in Littleton, Colo., was primarily responsible for constructing the spacecraft.

On Sept. 16, 2016, NASA launched OSIRIS-REx with the objective of gathering material from this celestial body. The spacecraft reached Bennu in the latter half of 2018. 

OSIRIS-REx was outfitted with specific features and functions tailored for the precise sample collection. The spacecraft’s Touch-And-Go Sample Acquisition Mechanism featured a robotic arm and collection head designed to gather materials from Bennu’s surface. Prior to collection, extensive mapping and planning was executed by OSIRIS-REx to ensure optimal results. 

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Following a successful collection, OSIRIS-REx stowed the sample in a sample return capsule located within the asteroid’s surface, protecting it on its journey back to Earth. On May 10, 2021, OSIRIS-REx bid farewell to Bennu and began its return. It reached Earth on Sept. 24, becoming the first United States spacecraft to return asteroid samples to Earth successfully. 

“The reason that Earth is the habitable world we have, with oceans, lakes, rivers and rain, is because (of) these clay minerals, like the ones we’re seeing from Bennu,” planetary scientist Dante Lauretta of the University of Arizona in Tucson said. 

“As we peer into the ancient secrets preserved within the dust and rocks of asteroid Bennu, we are unlocking a time capsule that offers us profound insights into the origins of our solar system,” he  stated.

The sample collected from Bennu contained water-bearing clay minerals and carbon-rich compounds. The presence of water-bearing clay minerals provides a glimpse into the conditions of the early solar system. 

Their presence on Bennu suggests they may have been present in a solar nebula from which the Sun and Earth formed. Lauretta noted that the samples are of particular interest because the clay minerals from Bennu could have played a prominent role in Earth’s habitability. 

The carbon-rich compounds were notably compelling. Carbon, a fundamental element for life, suggests that the raw ingredients for life may have been widespread in our stellar surroundings. 

The analysis of the Bennu samples holds scientific implications across multiple disciplines. Shedding light on the early solar system’s formation offers insights into the materials and conditions that contributed to the birth of the sun, planets and asteroids. 

Beyond Earth, these findings also add to scientific understandings of cosmic evolution, helping scientists trace the materials and processes that have shaped the solar system and the broader universe over eons.

“These discoveries, made possible through years of dedicated collaboration and cutting-edge science, propel us on a journey to understand not only our celestial neighborhood but also the potential for life’s beginnings,” Lauretta said.