US space agency Nasa unveiled to the public the first asteroid samples delivered by a spacecraft on Wednesday, as it said that the sample collected from the 4.5-billion-year-old asteroid Bennu contains abundant water and carbon.
A small quantity of the material collected by the OSIRIS-REx (Origins, Spectral Interpretation, Resource Identification and Security – Regolith Explorer) spacecraft three years ago from the near-Earth asteroid Bennu was unveiled in an auditorium at Nasa's Johnson Space Center in Houston, a little more than two weeks after it was parachuted into the Utah desert, a Reuters report said.
"This is the biggest carbon-rich asteroid sample ever returned to Earth," Nasa administrator Bill Nelson said at the press event at the Johnson Space Center in Houston, where the first images of black dust and pebbles were released.
According to an AFP report, carbon accounted for almost five percent of the sample's total weight, and was present in both organic and mineral form, while the water was locked inside the crystal structure of clay minerals, Nelson said.
Scientists believe the reason Earth has oceans, lakes and rivers is because it was hit with water-carrying asteroids 4 to 4.5 billion years ago, making it a habitable planet, the report adds. This evidence of high-carbon content and water, which together could indicate the building blocks of life on Earth may be found in the rock, Nasa said on its website.
This finding was part of a preliminary assessment of Nasa’s OSIRIS-REx science team. Nasa says while more work is needed to understand the nature of the carbon compounds found, the initial discovery bodes well for future analyses of the asteroid sample. “The secrets held within the rocks and dust from the asteroid will be studied for decades to come, offering insights into how our solar system was formed, how the precursor materials to life may have been seeded on Earth, and what precautions need to be taken to avoid asteroid collisions with our home planet," a Nasa release said.
“Almost everything we do at NASA seeks to answer questions about who we are and where we come from. NASA missions like OSIRIS-REx will improve our understanding of asteroids that could threaten Earth while giving us a glimpse into what lies beyond. The sample has made it back to Earth, but there is still so much science to come – science like we’ve never seen before,” Nelson added further.
For the next two years, the mission’s science team will continue characterizing the samples and conduct the analysis needed to meet the mission’s science goals. Nasa will preserve at least 70% of the sample at Johnson for further research by scientists worldwide, including future generations of scientists, the release said.
(With inputs from news agencies)