A haul of precious asteroid material, including some bound for Canada, was unveiled at NASA’s Johnson Space Center via livestream today (Oct. 11).
The OSIRIS-REx (Origins, Spectral Interpretation, Resource Identification and Security – Regolith Explorer) mission collected the sample from asteroid Bennu during a daring touch-and-go landing mapped by the Canadian-built OSIRIS-REx Laser Altimeter (OLA) that met all major mission objectives. The sample return spacecraft arrived in Utah late last month, making a flawless touchdown Sept. 24 after a seven-year journey.
OLA’s build was led by MDA and funded by the Canadian Space Agency (CSA). The lead Canadian scientist on OLA is Michael Daly of York University, former member of the Canadian Phoenix Mars Lander team that used similar technology on the Red Planet. The main spacecraft, incidentally, continues to operate in space under a new mission known as OSIRIS-APEX. It will next examine the near-Earth asteroid Apophis.
As for the freshly opened sample from asteroid Bennu, which is roughly 4.5 billion years old, the small sections examined so far suggests a lot of carbon and water that may have been key to forming planets like Earth, NASA officials said during the livestream. The exact nature of the carbon compounds, however, will require more analysis – months or perhaps years.
“This is the biggest carbon-rich asteroid sample ever returned to Earth,” NASA administrator Bill Nelson said at the event. “The carbon and water molecules are exactly the kinds of material that we wanted to find. They are crucial elements in the formation of our own planet. And they’re going to help us determine the origin of elements that could have led to life.”
Happily, there will be plenty of the sample to go around – the mission was supposed to collect 60 grams. So much extra stuff was collected at the asteroid, in fact, that it took extra time to carefully contain the sample from Earthly contamination, NASA said, because the so-called “bonus” material was in locations such as the outside of the collector head and the canister lid within the sample return hardware.
The first science observations
First science observations were collected using techniques such as infrared measurements, X-ray diffraction and scanning electron microscope imagery. Additionally, X-ray computed tomography created a single 3D model of one of the grains, showing off the carbon and water.
The initial round of characterizations and analysis will occupy two years, and at least 70 percent of the sample will be held aside for future research. Those scientists not already included in the sample analysis team will be able to request items from a sample catalogue that should be ready in roughly six months. A peer review team will examine all requests for scientific value, and selected proposals would then receive their samples in about nine months.
“It’s been going slow and meticulous, but the science is already starting,” OSIRIS-REx principal investigator Dante Lauretta, of the University of Arizona, said during the event.
Describing some of the revealed sample, Lauretta said scientists see dust particles as small as a sixteenth of inch in size. Water-bearing clay minerals were revealed, showing “serpentine” and fibrous structure due to the water being locked inside crystalline grains.
“We’re seeing the way that water got incorporated into the solid material, and then ultimately into planets – and not just Earth, but probably Venus and Mars,” Lauretta said. Other finds included sulphur, a “critical element for planetary evolution”, along with oxide minerals like magnetite “that may have played a central roles in the origin of life on Earth.”
The CSA, a member of the selection team that already has material allocated, plans to host its share at the agency’s headquarters near Montreal in a secure facility. The timing on when Canada gets its sample was not discussed during today’s event.
“Having access to a portion of the returned sample paves the way for exciting careers for Canadian and international scientists and will help refine our understanding of our solar system’s history, how our planet formed, and possibly the origin of water and life on Earth,” François-Philippe Champagne, the minister responsible for the CSA, said in an agency statement.
Canada’s contribution of the OLA “confirmed our reputation as a sought-after partner for space exploration missions,” added Champagne, who is the Minister of Innovation, Science and Industry of Canada. “Going to asteroid Bennu to map it, collect a sample and bring it back to Earth is a clear demonstration of what we can accomplish when the brightest minds work together towards an ambitious objective, and it reinforces the importance of national and international collaborations in space endeavours.”