December 6, 2023

A sample of the asteroid Bennu: traces of water and carbon – the most important topics

The sample was removed from asteroid Bennu and returned to Earth in a similarly spectacular way – and is now being examined. Preliminary results inspire researchers

Houston (dpa) – The debris sample of the asteroid Bennu that fell to Earth about three weeks ago contains traces of water and carbon, according to NASA.

Initial examinations of the sample showed this, but it still needs to be further analyzed, NASA announced on Wednesday at a press conference, in which photos and videos of the sample were shown for the first time. It is the first asteroid sample successfully brought to Earth in NASA’s history – and the largest sample ever taken.

“Research we have never seen before”

Bill Nelson, head of NASA, spoke of a “picture book mission.” The sample will help scientists around the world investigate the origins of life and our planet. “There’s going to be a lot of research on this, research that we’ve never seen before,” Nelson said. “In the next few months and years, we will certainly rewrite history a little bit,” NASA Administrator Mackenzie Listrup promised.

The sample was dropped into a capsule last September by NASA’s OSIRIS-REx probe from an altitude of about 102,000 kilometers – and then landed in the desert of the US state of Utah, protected by a heat shield and slowed down by parachutes. From there, it was then transferred to NASA laboratories in Texas, where about 200 scientists are now working on the material using 60 different examination methods.

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The materials will now be cataloged and then made available to researchers and museums around the world. About three years ago, Osiris Rex collected the sample from the celestial body using a complex maneuver.

The sample consists of dust and pieces of debris of various sizes, with a total weight of about 250 grams, which is roughly the weight of a jar of butter, according to NASA. NASA had hoped to obtain at least 60 grams in advance, and contrary to expectations, NASA scientists also found additional material from the asteroid Bennu inside and on board the capsule, which is why the investigation initially took longer than planned.

NASA considers Bennu one of the most dangerous asteroids

Osiris-Rex was launched from Cape Canaveral Spaceport in September 2016 and arrived on Bennu about two years later. The deep black asteroid, named after an ancient Egyptian god, is about 550 meters in diameter and could make its closest approach to Earth in 150 years.

Although the risk of impact is very low, NASA considers Bennu one of the most dangerous asteroids currently known – and therefore wants to research it in detail. Scientists also hope that the Osiris-Rex mission, which costs about $1 billion, will provide insight into the formation of the solar system more than 4.5 billion years ago, because such asteroids are remnants of it.

In 2005, the Japanese space probe Hayabusa landed on an asteroid. In 2010, the first soil samples collected from this celestial body were brought to Earth. There have been other flights to asteroids, but before Osiris-Rex, no other probe had been able to return material to Earth.

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Meanwhile, NASA continues to focus heavily on asteroids: the “Osiris-Rex” probe, which is approximately six meters long and weighs 2,100 kilograms, launched towards the next asteroid Apophis immediately after it was shot down. According to calculations, the asteroid with a diameter of about 370 meters will pass near Earth at a distance of about 32 thousand kilometers in 2029, and thus it can be studied closely for the first time. NASA’s Psyche mission is also scheduled to launch to the asteroid of the same name this week.

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