In the introductory video report of this article, you can watch the samples that the US Space Agency was able to deliver to Earth from an asteroid 190 million kilometers away. The OSIRIS-REx probe, which is about the size of an SUV and cost a billion dollars, set off on its journey on September 9, 2016, and touched down on the asteroid Bennu on October 21, 2020. It then dumped the collected dust and rocks in the return capsule in the Utah desert on September 24 this year.
The largest space mission of its kind
The entire round-trip mission was over seven billion kilometers long and took seven years, just because of the six seconds that the unique ship spent on the surface of the cosmic body. That much was enough for her to use the special Touch And Go Sample Acquisition Mechanism (TAGSAM) to stir up the dust and collect it in the collection box. And although its door didn’t close immediately and the material leaked out for a few hours, NASA believes it removed 250 grams – plus or minus 101 grams.
Information and footage can be heard and viewed in the introductory video report.
However, even if the Americans had taken “only” 149 grams, they would still have met their goal of 60 grams, and their first return of samples from an asteroid would still be the largest in the world. Such a mission has so far been accomplished only by the Japanese, who brought back less than a milligram of particles from the planet Itokawa in June 2010 and about 5.4 grams of particles from Ryugu in December 2020.
Even after more than two months, NASA still hasn’t specified how much rock it recovered, but it is already sending samples bit by bit to 200 experts around the world for examination. It is already known that they are rich in carbon, and apparently also in organic molecules.
The British believe that they can read the secret of our origin from a teaspoon of dust
A total of 100 milligrams was also obtained for analysis by the Natural History Museum in London. And its researchers believe that even from this “spoon” they can reveal even more about the origin of the Solar System, life on Earth and other fundamental questions.
“Asteroid Bennu formed 4.5 billion years ago, when the Solar System was just a swirling disc of dust and gas and the young Sun was just beginning to be born. And so his research can tell us what this planet-forming region was. Therefore, the goal of NASA’s Osiris-REX mission was to get to the asteroid Bennu, collect a sample from the surface and bring it back to Earth so that we can answer questions about our origins,” says senior planetary scientist Sara Russell in the SZ Tech report.
Earth in danger
But NASA did not choose this particular planet “just” so that people would learn more about the origin of the Earth and the entire planetary system. It is important for the US space agency to find out as much information as possible about itself and its trajectory, because it poses a security threat to humanity.
“The mission has some other goals as well. We think that asteroid Bennu is perhaps the most dangerous object for Earth in the Solar System because there is a chance, a very small chance, that it could one day hit our planet. So we wanted to find out its orbit and also understand its composition, so that in case we deflect it, we would know what we have the honor of,” adds the head of the research team in the introductory video of this article.
Where on Earth did water come from?
The British scientific team also believes that Bennu could also hold extraterrestrial water in its minerals.
“At the Museum of Natural History, we specialize in the field of mineralogy of extraterrestrial materials. So we’re going to use things like X-ray diffractometry and electron microscopes to look at exactly what the sample is made of. So far we have seen that this is a really water-rich rock. It is made up mostly of clay, which can capture water in its structure. And that tells us that the asteroid may have been formed from ice, then it heated up, the ice melted and created this liquid that interacted with the rock. And we also see quite a few other minerals. Like sulfides and magnetides,” Russell explains further in the report.
According to researchers from London, there is also a theory that water arrived on Earth 4.5 billion years ago together with asteroids.
“One of the things we wanted to explore was whether the water would still be there or if it would basically dehydrate itself by being in space. And for now it looks like she’s still trapped there. So it’s still wet rock, and that’s one of the reasons why it’s important to do return missions with samples rather than relying on meteorites that fall to earth to learn about extraterrestrial materials. And it’s because we know about this sample brought back from Bennu that it’s a sample in the same state it was on that asteroid. It didn’t have a chance to interact with the Earth’s atmosphere and perhaps absorb water from our planet because it was stored in a really, really strictly clean environment with nitrogen,” adds the lead planetary scientist.
“When the Earth was forming, it was probably really, really hot and it would have evaporated most of the water, so it’s possible that it got its water because it was bombarded by asteroids like Bennu, which brought water to the surface of the Earth,” he says in the opening video of this article.
Years of research worth it
The Natural History Museum in London, where Russell and her team work, was one of a total of four British scientific institutions to receive American samples of the asteroid. The others are the University of Oxford, Manchester and the Open University of Buckinghamshire.
British scientists predict that even though it took almost exactly seven years to get the samples from Bennu, it will take them many more years to answer all their questions. According to them, it will definitely be worth the time and work.
“We have so much work ahead of us. We just received the sample and are very excited to start working on it. We hope to find out exactly how much water is in the sample and how it affects it. We also want to see if we will also examine grains that were not affected by water, but were just dust particles that circulated in the so-called protoplanetary disk, before the asteroid itself was even formed. This would take us back in time to the beginnings of the Solar System. And maybe even further, when we get to the grains that formed around the stars that are our ancestors. But all this work will take us months and years. So we have a lot of work ahead of us,” added Russell at the end of the report.