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NASA’s OSIRIS-REx Mission To Suck Up Dust From An Ancient Asteroid

This artist's concept shows OSIRIS-REx spacecraft contacting the asteroid Bennu with the Touch-And-Go Sample Arm Mechanism or TAGSAM. Photo: NASA

Asteroids can be the best witness to space history. They travel around the universe, collect debris from important events like collisions and explosions, and safeguard evidence of the start of life.

NASA’s OSIRIS-REx spacecraft will descend Tuesday onto the surface of Bennu, a 4.6-billion-years-old nearby asteroid, to collect dust that might reveal how life started in our solar system.

The seven year mission launched in 2016 from Cape Canaveral, Florida. It will collect between two ounces and four pounds of asteroid dust and send it back to Earth by 2023.

NASA astrobiologist and senior scientist for OSIRIS-REx Jason Dworkin said the mission is critical to finding evidence that couldn’t be collected otherwise.

“To understand how life got started in the solar system, we need to understand how organics and other primitive materials found their way to early Earth and other bodies. The best way to understand that is to look at the evidence left behind by the formation of the solar system,” Dworkin said.

LISTEN: How will ancient asteroid dust help uncover the secret to life in the solar system? Listen to Are We There Yet?, WMFE’s space exploration podcast.

Unlike the collection of meteorites — which are asteroids that enter the Earth’s atmosphere — an unaltered sample of dust from Bennu will allow scientists to track the origin of the rocky body and observe the elements that were present when it formed.

Small asteroids enter our planet quite often, but Dworkin said they become quickly contaminated with Earth’s biology.

“Biology on Earth is ubiquitous and tenacious, so if it finds compounds on meteorites, it tries to eat them right away,” Dworkin said.

The OSIRIS-REx mission has spotted minerals and organic compounds while orbiting the asteroid. The materials collected will not be analyzed all at once — instead a portion of the dust will be archived for future scientists.

“One of the most exciting things about OSIRIS-REx is that 75 percent of the sample that we bring back will serve for the future. So samples will be saved for people not yet born, for techniques not yet invented, for questions not yet asked,” Dworkin added.

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