When NASA sent OSIRIS-REx to the asteroid Bennu in 2016, its scientists were hoping the asteroid’s rocks and debris would give them information about the birth of the solar system and life on our planet.
The black rocks in the sample are high in carbon and show evidence of water.
” The results to date have been based on just a few weeks of studying the grains that were taken from OSIRIS REx,” Jason P. Dworkin told Insider by email. “There will be much to come.”
Finding water and carbon from an asteroid
Already, scientists have used a variety of instruments to get an initial peek at the sample. The scanning electron microscope (SEM), infrared, X ray diffraction and chemical element analyses all gave early clues about what secrets were hidden inside regolith or rocky soil.
Dworkin stated that the team had not yet opened the canister. Instead, they’ve been looking at the “bonus” material that they found strewn over the collection device, canister lid, and base, according to NASA.
A 3D computer model of one of the particles showed it contained a large amount of carbon and evidence of water.
But Dworkin said that it is not liquid water. The water is trapped in minerals. “Scientists will also be searching for tiny pools of water trapped inside mineral grains such as have been found in some meteorites,” he said.
What does the asteroid sample look like?
The sample is black and rocky. The color is likely a result of the high abundance of carbon and the mineral magnetite, Dworkin said. They are also found on Earth. Magnetite is very plentiful, present in many types of rocks.
Dworkin can’t say for sure yet what the texture is like. “So far only fine particles, the size of sand or smaller, have been handled carefully with tweezers to prevent contamination,” he said. They’re doing all the analysis in clean rooms at NASA’s Johnson Space Center in Houston, Texas.
After weighing a few samples, they are waiting for detailed density measurements. They will perform these next month.
“We would expect samples to be a little less dense than an average rock and denser than ice,” Dworkin said.
What more will scientists learn from the Bennu sample?
Dworkin said the OSIRIS-REx team has 12 major hypotheses about the sample. The team wants to analyze the sample and understand the results so far from the clay, magnetite and carbonate. They also want to interpret what they have found.
This information will allow them to search for the organic compounds that are necessary for life. The sample will also provide clues about the history of the solar system.
NASA is sending portions of the regolith to other institutions all over the world but also preserving much of it for future research.
“My greatest hope is that future generations of scientists will learn things I cannot imagine with new techniques and new ideas with the 70% of the sample that will be available for the future,” Dworkin said.
Until then, the team expects to learn much more in the coming weeks, months, and years.
“These results aren’t even the appetizer yet, just the enticing scent coming from the kitchen,” said Dworkin. “But the main course is on the way and we have every reason to believe it will be spectacular.”
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