An Earth-threatening asteroid might be the last thing you want to see — unless it’s in the confines of a museum. Today (Nov. 3), the Smithsonian’s National Museum of Natural History unveiled the first public display of a sample collected from the Bennu asteroid, which NASA considers a “potentially hazardous object.”
The sample – 3.5 to 8.8 ounces (100 to 250 grams) of rocky space debris collected by the OSIRIS-REx spacecraft – is believed to contain some of the earliest precursors of life and is the first piece of space rock grabbed ever by NASA mission.
NASA scientists first revealed the sample on October 11 after it returned back to Earth aboard the OSIRIS-REx capsule at speeds up to 27,000 mph (43,000 km/h). After a seven-year, 4 billion mile (6.4 million kilometer) round trip, the capsule deployed its parachute and landed safely in the Utah desert before being transported to the Johnson Space Center in Houston, where scientists began analyzing its contents for signs of life beyond our planet.
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“The OSIRIS-REx mission is an incredible scientific achievement that promises to shed light on what makes our planet unique,” Kirk Johnson, Sant director of the National Museum of Natural History in Washington, D.C., said in a statement. “With the help of our partners at NASA, we are proud to put one of these remarkable samples on public display for the first time.”
Bennu is a potentially dangerous asteroid which has a 1 in 2700 chance to hit Earth in 2182 – the highest probability of any known space object. But scientists are more interested in what is captured in the space rock: the possible alien progenitors of life on Earth.
“This is the largest carbon-rich asteroid sample ever returned to Earth,” NASA Admin Bill Nelson said at press conference upon return of the sample. “Carbon and water molecules are exactly the elements we wanted to detect. They are crucial elements in the formation of our own planet and will help us determine the origin of the elements that could give rise to life.”
Water on Earth is older than the planet itself and was probably brought here by an asteroid and comet strikes. But water is probably not the only material asteroid brought to Earth; the building blocks of life probably also got on a space rock. Bennu is a B-type asteroid, meaning it contains large amounts carbon and, potentially, many of the primordial molecules present when life first appeared on Earth.
Some of these building blocks – including uracil, one of the nucleobases for RNA — were recently found on asteroid Ryugu from the Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency’s Hayabusa2 spacecraft, which returned to Earth with its rock sample in 2020. OSIRIS-REx mission scientists hope to find other potential precursors to Earth’s biology in the Bennu sample.
The sample was collected after nearly two years of searching for a landing site on Bennu’s rocky surface. Upon contact with the asteroid, OSIRIS-REx fired a burst of nitrogen from its Touch-and-Go sample collection mechanism to hold the lander and prevent the craft from sinking through the asteroid.
The explosion sent rocks and dust flying around the craft, and some of that rocky debris landed in a container aboard OSIRIS-REx. A subsequent blast of OSIRIS-REx’s thrusters later lifted it off Bennu, and the spacecraft completed several flybys before leaving the asteroid for Earth in May 2021.
The Smithsonian is the first museum to publicly display a sample from Bennu, along with the returned OSIRIS-REx capsule and the Atlas V 411 rocket that launched it. The display is located in the Janet Annenberg Hooker Hall of Geology, Gems and Minerals. Smithsonian researchers will also analyze another sample behind the scenes for signs of progenitor life.
“Having now returned to Earth without being exposed to our water-rich atmosphere or the life that fills every corner of our planet, the samples from Bennu promise to tell us about water and organic matter before life appeared, to form our unique planet,” Tim McCoy, the museum’s curator of meteorites who worked on the OSIRIS-REx mission, said in the statement.