Bennu is a near-Earth asteroid that could hold the foundations of the emergence of life on our planet within its surface of ‘debris’. An early mission that will thoroughly investigate space rock could shed light on the origin of the solar system.
Bennu was once part of a much larger world, covered in water, according to scientists, and could hold the key to life on Earth. To investigate the rock in-depth, NASA will make a landing on this asteroid on October 20 as part of the OSIRIS-REx mission, where it will collect samples of space material for scientists.
It is not the first time that the astronomical community shows interest in this asteroid. OSIRIS-REx has been orbiting the celestial body and conducting reconnaissance studies of its surface since 2018, in order to determine its composition and structure. Now, ahead of the new mission, six research papers have been released examining the history and composition of the asteroid.
One such document, from Amy Simon of the Goddard Space Flight Center, found evidence of organic and carbon-bearing materials on the entire surface of Bennu. Something that scientists explain as a result of the free movement of water through the body that created the asteroid.
This is the first confirmed detection of these building blocks of life on a near-Earth asteroid, according to the team behind the study. These are organic molecules and carbonate minerals, which created life on the planet, eventually leading to the emergence of humanity.
To demonstrate the presence of carbon in the materials, Simon and his colleagues used infrared spectroscopy. These primitive building blocks of life are particularly concentrated in individual rocks, the team explained.
“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,” states the mission’s principal investigator, Dante Lauretta, quoted by Daily Mail.
Some of the carbonates from which they found evidence are only formed through interactions with water. This is evidence that Bennu was once part of a larger parental body with a hydrothermal system. Thus, the asteroid was born from the debris of its parents’ bodies and some of its mineral veins have survived intact, as the NASA team discovered.
Some of the carbonates they examined, show evidence for are only formed through interactions with water. This is evidence that Bennu was once part of a larger parental body with a hydrothermal system. Thus, the asteroid was born from the debris of its parents’ body and some of its mineral veins have survived intact, as nasa team discovered.
“This is why we do spacecraft exploration. We didn’t expect to see these things, we cannot see them from Earth, and we needed to be orbiting pretty close up to the asteroid in order to see them,” says Hannah Kaplan, also of the Goddard Space Flight Center.
Cosmic rays and solar winds have exposed fresh material to the surface at Bennu, and one of those areas (in the Nightingale crater region) is precisely where OSIRIS-REx will land, as that site will provide a clearer view of the early solar system and will aid research.
Scientists from around the world have participated in studying Bennu’s data, including Open University researcher Ben Rozitis. He has analyzed the temperature changes in the space rock and found that some of the rocks are weaker and more porous than others.
Rozitis says these porous rocks are unlikely to survive entry into Earth’s atmosphere, as they would heat up and explode.
From these analyzes, we can understand what conditions were present in the formation of the solar system 4.5 billion years ago, how it subsequently evolved, and also where the organic compounds that helped start life came from.