Scientists are now inspecting snagged, bagged and labeled fragments of asteroid Bennu, the cosmic mother lode delivered by NASA’s Origins, Spectral Interpretation, Resource Identification and Security – Regolith Explorer mission.
Known in astronomical acronym jargon as OSIRIS-RExThat seven-year journey brought home the goods via a sample return container that came to an end on September 24, 2023. parachute into a remote area from the Department of Defense’s Utah Test and Training Range. These specimens are believed to contain the remains of the formation of the Solar system 4.5 billion years ago.
Space.com met with two prominent scientists who are now dedicated to extracting what those dark asteroid The particles are illuminating, classifying how these materials exported from Determine came to be. But also what ideas do they have about the origin of the worlds within our solar system, including Land.
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The setting is the Kuiper-Arizona Laboratory for Astromaterials Analysis at the University of Arizona. Researchers are using instruments to dig deeper into what OSIRIS-REx collectibles tell them, down to the atomic scale.
To start, scientists at the University of Arizona received 200 milligrams (about seven thousandths of an ounce) of the Bennu asteroid sample for analysis.
“We have more than 1,000 particles that are larger than half a millimeter, 28 particles that are larger than a centimeter, and the largest particle is 3.5 centimeters,” said Dante Lauretta of the University of Arizona, principal investigator of OSIRIS-REx. “So it’s a great collection full of really big stones.”
The Bennu samples contain abundant amounts of water locked in minerals such as clays and are also rich in carbon, nitrogen, sulfur and phosphorus. The OSIRIS-REx samples represent the largest pristine reservoir of such material on Earth.
“We’re going to be busy for a long, long time,” Lauretta told Space.com. “This is a huge amount of sample for us,” she said, and now Bennu specimens are also being studied around the world.
Different and different
What has been discovered will be detailed at next month’s 55th Lunar and Planetary Science Conference in The Woodlands, Texas. More than 70 summaries of scientific production have been presented at that prestigious meeting, Lauretta said. “Starting in March all this will be revealed to the world. So the team is working hard,” she said.
One of the first findings is that the asteroid material under inspection appears “distinct and unlike anything else in our meteorite collection isotopically, which is exciting,” Lauretta said. “There is a whole area of material that we will never have access to if we only depend on meteorites,” Lauretta added.
Most of the meteorites that endure their fiery fall earth atmosphere and what is recovered are pieces of asteroids. But it’s not easy to identify the space rock from which they originated.
The OSIRIS-REx samples have a phosphate crust never before seen in meteorites, Lauretta said. These high concentrations of phosphate have been detected on extraterrestrial ocean worlds, she said.
For example, the moon of Saturn Enceladus It contains phosphates, a key component of life, and at levels much higher than Earth’s oceans.
“Asteroid Bennu may be a fragment of an ancient ocean world. This is still very speculative. But it is the best clue I have now to explain the origin of that material,” Lauretta said.
connect the dots
Unraveling the history of the asteroid Bennu is a surreal task, said Thomas Zega, a professor at the university’s Lunar and Planetary Laboratory and scientific director of the school’s Kuiper-Arizona Laboratory for Astromaterials Analysis.
Zega points out the decades that marked the OSIRIS-REx mission, from a developed proposal to the extreme study of asteroid samples in the laboratory.
“Honestly, rarely a day goes by where I don’t consider myself incredibly lucky to be able to do this for a living,” Zega told Space.com. “I pinch myself. It’s a blessing.”
By any definition, the OSIRIS-REx mission has been a phenomenal success, Zega added, “and now being able to use some of the most sophisticated analytical tools on the planet to measure the samples is quite remarkable.”
Missions like OSIRIS-REx, in addition to teaching scientists about the origins of Bennu, Zega noted, “really help us connect the dots between other meteorites that we have in our Earth-based collections,” he said, “and maybe asteroids from the that come from”. in the asteroid belt between Mars and Jupiter.”
Zega was a member of the “quick view” team that participated in the opening of the OSIRIS-REx sample return capsule after its delivery to NASA’s Johnson Space Center in Houston, Texas.
What the curation team experts found was a layer of fine-grained dust from the sampling maneuver on Bennu on the returned avionics shroud and on the exterior of the Touch-and-Go Sample Acquisition Mechanism (TAGSAM), the air filter-like contraption on the end of the OSIRIS-REx robotic arm that caught most of the Bennu fragments.
One aspect of Zega’s surreal encounter with Bennu is departing from Texas and flying back to Arizona with a small sample fraction of the asteroid prearranged.
After all, Zega’s express courier duties come about because the University of Arizona has been the base of operations for some 20 years of work to take OSIRIS-REx from a bargain to a ballistic entry of asteroid material .
cover of darkness
“There was no way it was in checked luggage! It was in my backpack that I carried on the plane. It was a small amount of material, sealed in a bag that was in turn sealed in a vial that had been filled with nitrogen. So everything was protected,” Zega recalls.
Upon landing in Tucson at night, the first thing Zega did was put the sample in a box of dry nitrogen in the university laboratory to protect and preserve it.
“And then I went home, had dinner and went to sleep,” Zega said.
Zega said he jokes that it all happened under the cover of darkness. “No one realized that someone had just brought the first sample of NASA’s first asteroid to Tucson,” she said.
Last month, on January 10, NASA curators completely opened up the OSIRIS-REx TAGSAM head stuffed with Bennu bits. That final step was a long time coming due to a pair of problematic fasteners that prevented a visual look at the entire cargo of asteroid collectibles.
Now on tap will publish a catalog of all Bennu samples later this year, giving scientists and institutions around the world the chance to apply to examine Bennu stings from the spacecraft.
Meanwhile, Lauretta and Zega, along with their colleagues, are busy evaluating Bennu specimens.
Teams of students and university professors are making use of a wide range of capabilities, from optical and electron microscopes to a newly acquired tool.
A powerful nanoSIMS instrument is in operation, offering stunning views of isotopes (different variations of atoms) to help interpret how each particular component of the Bennu sample originated.
“A lot of interesting things are going to happen in the next few months,” Lauretta said. “So stay tuned.”
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