NASA’s OSIRIS-REx spacecraft brought back samples from the asteroid Bennu and, in a livestream earlier today, NASA scientists showed us what it found hanging out in the great vastness of the cosmos. Simply put, the agency brought back a fairly large sample collection of various-sized rocks, dust particles and intermediate-sized particles.
The big news here is that samples from the 4.5-billion-year-old asteroid contain not only carbon, which is to be expected, but also water. These are the building blocks of life on Earth and, likely, everywhere else, so this is a big deal.
“The OSIRIS-REx sample is the biggest carbon-rich asteroid sample ever delivered to Earth and will help scientists investigate the origins of life on our own planet for generations to come,” said NASA Administrator Bill Nelson.
While space rocks and dust may seem boring to those expecting a bevy of friendly aliens, there's still plenty of time to make more fantastic discoveries. These samples have only been on the planet since September 25 and initial studies just began. NASA says they'll continue to study the particles and will create a registry of some kind so scientists from other organizations can borrow portions for a looksie. Some samples are also heading to museums.
The space agency says that the "secrets held within the rocks and dust from the asteroid will be studied for decades to come, offering insights into how our solar system was formed, how the precursor materials to life may have been seeded on Earth, and what precautions need to be taken to avoid asteroid collisions with our home planet."
Additionally, scientists were pleasantly surprised by the presence of "bonus asteroid material" covering the outside of the collector head, canister lid and base. Vanessa Wyche, director of NASA's Johnson Space Center, says that the agency is ready with additional specialized tools to "study this precious gift from the cosmos."
OSIRIS-REx actually grabbed the sample from Bennu all the way back in 2020. After that, the space vessel spent 18 months analyzing the asteroid from above before making its way back to orbit our favorite life-sustaining blue marble.
Bennu is an ancient relic of our solar system, as NASA says it was formed anywhere from 700 million to 2 billion years ago after breaking off a much larger asteroid that was originally formed over 4.5 billion years ago. Due to its older-than-Methuselah status, these Bennu fragments could actually give us a window into how life started on Earth, thanks to the carbon and water already discovered and any future findings.
This isn't the end for the curious spacecraft OSIRIS-REx. It's still out there, doing its best Jim Kirk impression. Next up? The craft's heading to an asteroid named Apophis under a new mission name, OSIRIS-APEX.