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Saturday, May 18, 2024

NASA Reveals First Look at ‘Scientific Bounty’ Gathered from Asteroid

On Wednesday, the results of a seven-year quest to bring back pieces of an asteroid were finally revealed.

Images of the salt-and-pepper sized bits of rock and particles of black space dust sent back to Earth from the asteroid Bennu were revealed by NASA officials in Houston, who also reported preliminary scientific investigations of the material. In September, the capsule used in the Osiris-Rex mission to gather asteroid samples returned to Earth and was found in the Utah desert.

Some of the contents escaped while technicians probed the outside container. Researchers were able to undertake a preliminary investigation quickly enough to provide some promising results.

Water-soaked clay minerals were found among the asteroid fragments. Having them here could provide light on the mystery of how Earth became into a watery world. Bennu-like asteroids may have hit Earth and flooded its oceans.

Sulphur, an essential component in several geological processes, was also present in the minerals. “It determines how quickly things melt, and it is also critical for biology,” Dr. Lauretta stated as she showed microscopic photos and 3-D visualisations of the material. The researchers also unearthed magnetite, an iron oxide mineral with potential as a catalyst in organic chemistry.

Origins, Spectral Interpretation, Resource Identification and Security, Regolith Explorer (or Osiris-Rex for short) was the name of the NASA mission that brought back the samples. The mission ended on September 24 when a capsule carrying Bennu’s remnants landed in the Utah desert. The capsule was then transported to Houston’s Johnson Space Centre. The black powder and sand-size particles were discovered when technicians there opened the canister housing the sample collecting apparatus.

One of the technicians, Moritza Montoya, used a spatula to compress the powder into little mounds, and then she would carefully sweep them up with a tiny dust pan. The item in question is a “mini dust pan,” as Ms. Montoya put it.

How much raw material the scientists have is yet unknown. They hope to be able to weigh the device after dismantling it for a few more weeks. Before leaving Bennu, engineers carried out a manoeuvre that yielded a ballpark figure of 8.8 ounces. Osiris-Rex was expected to return at least 2.1 ounces of precious metal.

Although similarities may be seen, scientists aim to compare the Bennu samples with those carried back by the Japanese spacecraft Hayabusa2 from the comparable asteroid Ryugu. Water content is lower in ryugu, for example.

The almost black asteroid Bennu was found in 1999, and it is rich in carbon. It has a width of almost 1,600 feet. When you include in the antenna on top of the Empire State Building, its total height is 1,454 feet. The carbon-rich minerals are fascinating because it is possible that life on Earth was seeded by asteroids like Bennu.

Osiris-Rex was sent into space in 2016, and it arrived at Bennu two years later to conduct distant observations. Based on these far-off observations, carbonate minerals were found to exist within the asteroid. Carbonate minerals are commonly formed in hot water and carbon dioxide rich settings. That points to the existence of hot springs or some other type of widespread hydrothermal system on the bigger object of which Bennu was previously a part. That would make the possibility of liquid water trapped in mineral pores for many billion years a real possibility.

In October of 2020, Osiris-Rex pogo-sticked off the asteroid after collecting rock samples with its sampling equipment, which resembles an automotive air filter on the end of a robotic arm. Bennu’s boulders and dust were blown into the collection filter by a blast of nitrogen gas, and Osiris-Rex gently retreated without landing.

The gathered rock and dirt began to fly back into space when a jam caused a flap on the collection tool to open. The sample was promptly stashed once it was chosen to do so by mission leadership. The spaceship’s return to Earth began in May of 2021.

Scientists want to compare the surface samples to the hydrogen to deuterium (the heavier type of hydrogen) ratio found in Earth’s oceans. Comets were formerly assumed to be the source of Earth’s water supply, but further research has shown that their hydrogen-to-deuterium ratios are far off from our own.

The samples may also provide insight into the universal fact that amino acids and other complex organic substances on Earth are always used in just one of their mirror-image forms. If Bennu has a higher concentration of the mirror form utilised by life, it means the universe favoured that outcome. If not that, then maybe it was just a matter of luck.

Future Earth defence could potentially benefit from Osiris-Rex studies.

A near-Earth asteroid, Bennu has a 1-in-1,750 probability of colliding with Earth during one of its close approaches between 2175 and 2199.

Bennu is not massive enough to trigger mass extinctions on Earth. However, the local effects of such an event would be devastating.

Even if the spacecraft’s mission has ended, its adventure has only just begun. The primary spacecraft veered away from Earth after the return sample capsule was dropped, and it will soon approach the asteroid Apophis, which will pass within 20,000 miles of our planet in the year 2029. Apophis is 1,000 feet broad. The spacecraft, now called Osiris-Apex (short for Origins, Spectral Interpretation, Resource Identification, and Security-Apophis Explorer), will enter orbit around Apophis soon after this near encounter.

A Boyle
A Boyle
I cover Science related topics for The National Era
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