Unexpected discoveries from near-Earth asteroid Bennu about origins of life, Nasa reveals

Osiris-Rex will be the first spacecraft to return an asteroid sample to Earth

Anthony Cuthbertson
Tuesday 19 March 2019 18:30
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Nasa spacecraft arrives at asteroid Bennu

Nasa has revealed "unexpected" findings from the first data received back from a nearby asteroid, offering clues to the origins of the solar system and even life on Earth.

The US space agency launched the Osiris-Rex (Origins-Spectral Interpretation-Resource Identification-Security-Regolith Explorer) spacecraft to the near-Earth asteroid Bennu in September 2016 and it finally arrived on 3 December 2018.

It is the first mission aimed at returning an asteroid sample to Earth, though this won't be for another few years.

The latest findings from the mission are reported in seven scientific papers published in Nature, Nature Astronomy, Nature Geoscience and Nature Communications this week, with one revealing the "unexpected surface of asteroid Bennu".

Features of Bennu's surface suggest it may be older than expected, providing insights into different stages of the evolution of the Solar System.

The Bennu asteroid is part of the leftover debris from the formation of the solar system, and a similar space rock may once have introduced the hydrated, carbon-rich material needed for life to begin.

Observations of Bennu from instruments onboard Osiri-Rex confirmed the presence of widespread and abundant hydrated materials, as well as the unexpected presence of numerous, large boulders.

The Bennu asteroid passes Earth every six years and could come so close in 150 years that it hits our planet. The odds remain small but not insignificant – around one-tenth of 1 per cent.

Only slightly wider than the height of the Empire State Building, Bennu is not big enough to destroy Earth but could cause huge destruction.

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Its size makes it the smallest body to ever be orbited by a spacecraft, Nasa said.

"Studying Bennu with Osiris-Rex will allow researchers to learn more about the origins of our solar system, the sources of water and organic molecules on Earth, and the hazards and resources in near-Earth space," the space agency said.

Nasa will host a media conference at 5.30pm GMT to announce further details about the agency's mission to return the spacecraft to Earth.

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