The recent revelation by NASA that a sample collected from the 4.5-billion-year-old asteroid Bennu contains abundant water and carbon has reignited the debate on the origin of life. The discovery, made after a seven-year-round-trip to the distant rock as part of the OSIRIS-REx mission, provides more evidence supporting the theory that life on Earth could have been seeded from outer space. The images of black dust and pebbles retrieved from the Utah desert last month have captivated scientists and the public alike. With carbon accounting for nearly five percent of the sample’s total weight, and water being locked inside the crystal structure of clay minerals, the findings have opened up new avenues of research that could shed light on the origins of life on our planet.
Scientists postulate that Earth’s oceans, lakes, and rivers exist today because it was bombarded with water-carrying asteroids billions of years ago. These impacts transformed our planet into a habitable environment and set the stage for life to emerge. Carbon is fundamental for life on Earth since it forms the basis for proteins, enzymes, DNA, and RNA. The presence of carbon in both organic and mineral form in the Bennu sample further bolsters the argument that life’s building blocks may indeed be derived from extraterrestrial sources. Clay minerals, with their unique ability to encapsulate water within their crystal structure, offer tantalizing clues about the role of minerals in the emergence of life.
The preliminary analysis conducted using scanning electron microscopy, X-ray computed tomography, and other techniques has left scientists in awe. “This stuff is an astrobiologist’s dream,” remarked scientist Daniel Glavin. The sample, the largest carbon-rich asteroid sample ever returned to Earth, will undergo further examination in labs worldwide. The sharing of the sample will foster collaboration among scientists and pave the way for future discoveries and breakthroughs.
While OSIRIS-REx is not the first probe to bring back samples from an asteroid, its return dwarfed previous missions in terms of the quantity of material collected. Hayabusa2, Japan’s successful asteroid sample return mission, managed to retrieve a mere 5.4 grams, while OSIRIS-REx collected an estimated 250 grams (half a pound). This unprecedented collection provides researchers with an extensive resource to study Bennu’s composition and properties. Bennu, named after an ancient Egyptian deity, is a primordial artifact preserved in the vacuum of space. Its accessibility, intersecting Earth’s orbit, simplifies future missions and potentially offers insights into mitigating the threat it poses to our planet in the distant future.
To unravel the mysteries held within the Bennu sample, researchers have focused on the bonus particles that lay on top of the sample collecting mechanism. While this diversion was unintentional due to a mechanical issue, it has allowed scientists to gather preliminary data and gain a better understanding of the asteroid’s composition. A comprehensive inspection of the remaining sample will follow in due course. The loose packing of Bennu’s exterior particles has surprised researchers, with the surface being compared to a pit of plastic balls. Future examination of the remainder of the sample will shed light on Bennu’s internal structure and evolution.
NASA has made a commitment to preserve at least 70 percent of the Bennu sample at the Johnson Space Center in Houston for future study. This move follows the Apollo era’s practice of preserving moon rocks, allowing scientific advancements and emerging technologies to interrogate the samples for years to come. The remaining pieces of the sample will find their way to public display, captivating the imaginations of visitors to the Smithsonian Institution, Space Center Houston, and the University of Arizona. Sharing these extraterrestrial treasures with the public reinforces the collective human endeavor to explore and understand our place in the universe.
The discovery of abundant water and carbon in the Bennu sample has ignited excitement and speculation about the possibility of life originating from outer space. This finding adds to the growing body of evidence supporting the theory that asteroids played a significant role in shaping Earth into a habitable planet. Further analysis and collaboration among scientists worldwide will undoubtedly uncover more insights into the origins of life and the captivating mysteries of our universe. As humanity continues to push the boundaries of exploration, the secrets of the cosmos are slowly being unveiled, sparking wonder and curiosity in every corner of our planet.