With NASA getting ready to land a spacecraft on the asteroid Bennu in just a few short days, the mysterious space rock is already revealing some of its secrets, including the presence of carbon-bearing materials.
Several studies were published on the matter in the journals Science and Science Advances, noting that carbon-bearing, organic material is “widespread” on the surface of the asteroid. This includes the area where NASA’s OSIRIS-REx spacecraft will take its first sample from, known as Nightingale, on Oct. 20.
“The abundance of carbon-bearing material is a major scientific triumph for the mission. We are now optimistic that we will collect and return a sample with organic material – a central goal of the OSIRIS-REx mission,” said Dante Lauretta, OSIRIS-REx principal investigator at the University of Arizona in Tucson, in a statement.
During the early days of the Solar System, as planets were being formed, debris flew throughout space, much of which never became a planet or moon and wound up becoming part of the asteroid belt. Due to Bennu’s unique composition, it may bolster the argument for panspermia, the idea that asteroids helped the necessary components to life, the researchers said.
“Because it migrated from the main asteroid belt into an Earth-crossing orbit, Bennu is a prime example of how material could have been delivered to the early Earth from farther out in the solar system,” Amy Simon, a researcher at NASA’s Goddard Flight Center and one of the authors’ of the papers, said in an interview with Space.com.
Panspermia is the hypothesis that life on Earth originated from microorganisms in outer space that were carried here unintentionally by objects such as space dust, meteoroids and asteroids, according to an article on NASA’s website.
A study published in October 2018 detailed the implications of comet-like objects that could be “ferrying” microbial life across thousands of light-years, adding that these microbes might be able to withstand the exceptionally long journey.
That the researchers discovered carbonates (some are a few feet long and several inches thick) on Bennu have led the researchers to believe its parent asteroid may have had “had an extensive hydrothermal system, where water interacted with and altered the rock on Bennu’s parent body,” according to NASA’s statement.
Bennu’s parent asteroid is widely believed to have been destroyed a long time ago.
In their research, the scientists also discovered the regolith of Bennu had only “recently” been exposed to space, making it “spectrally red.” As such, OSIRIS-REx will collect and return “some of the most pristine” material on the space rock.
Since arriving at the asteroid in December 2018, OSIRIS-REx (which stands for Origins, Spectral Interpretation, Resource Identification and Security Regolith Explorer) has been observing the space rock and looking for spots to land.
After being delayed by the coronavirus pandemic, NASA said OSIRIS-REx’s first attempt at sampling the asteroid will occur on Oct. 20, pushed back from Aug. 25. The second rehearsal took place on Aug. 11 after being pushed back from June.
In December 2019, prior to the pandemic, NASA picked the spot where it would land on the asteroid.
It has snapped some incredible images of the asteroid and made observations about it that have surprised researchers, including the fact it was shooting out rocks.
OSIRIS-REx is expected to begin a two-year journey back to Earth in the middle of 2021 and return with samples in September 2023.