Scientists “excited” about sample from asteroid Bennu arriving in September

The sample could provide clues to how life on Earth formed.
Loukia Papadopoulos
Asteroid Bennu.jpg
Asteroid Bennu.


A group of Canadian scientists is eagerly awaiting for a sample from the asteroid Bennu that will come September 24 seven years after NASA's OSIRIS-REx spacecraft blasted off Earth to go collect the package.

The craft will now drop a capsule into the Earth's atmosphere containing matter plucked from the surface of Bennu, an asteroid dating from the early history of the solar system.

This is according to a report from CTV News published on Saturday.

Extraterrestrial material

"I've never worked with extraterrestrial material," told the news outlet Dominique Weis, a geoscientist at the University of British Columbia, who is expected to get a small fragment of the new sample.

"I'm perfectly excited."

OSIRIS-REx has already reached asteroid Bennu’s surface and scooped up a sample of it. It will now drop off the package on Earth.

"In six weeks, we took data that provided the most detailed asteroid model ever," told CTV News Michael Daly of York University's Centre for Research in Earth and Space Science, who headed a team that designed crucial parts of the spacecraft. "You could see fractures and details in the rocks.

"We're very proud of that."

There were several reasons why Bennu was chosen for this mission: it's at a travellable distance, it’s big enough for a spacecraft to orbit and it's considered relatively unmodified since its birth, providing a window into the early history of the solar system.

"The idea is to go as far back in time as possible," Weis said.

It also helps that the Earth actually came from asteroids.

"The Earth was formed by asteroids getting together," Alan Hildebrand, a University of Calgary geoscientist, who is also to receive a Bennu bit, said. "Studying asteroids helps you understand the origins of our planet."

"The rocks comprising Bennu are from an older part of the solar system," Hildebrand added. "We get to see the whole suite (of constituents) without the atmospheric filter."

Organic compounds

Bennu is also believed to possibly contain organic compounds such as carbon, hydrogen, oxygen and nitrogen that could offer clues to how life began on Earth.

Once they have received the samples, the scientists will have to be very careful about how they handle them. NASA is making sure recipients are educated on how to handle the precious grains, practicing protocols on fragments of meteorites.

"We rehearse and rehearse and rehearse and rehearse some more," said Weis. "We are working on the methods to be as sensitive and precise as possible."

Meanwhile, OSIRIS-REx, renamed OSIRIS-APEX, is already off to its next mission: studying another asteroid called Apophis. Once it reaches this celestial object it will use its thrusters to try to dislodge dust and small rocks on and below that asteroid's surface, collecting even more valuable samples for study and analysis on Earth.