Asteroid Bennu Could Provide Insight Into Earth’s Origins

In early September, NASA began tracking an asteroid as it was hurtling towards Earth. Although the asteroid, named Bennu, won’t hit our planet until the 22nd century, scientists are still eager to collect material from its surface.

The OSIRIS-REx spacecraft is responsible for that collection, and it’s going to travel for two years to get to the asteroid, and land back on Earth by 2023. Bennu’s trajectory will also be monitored and analyzed in order to calculate the danger it represents for Earth. Right now, it is projected that it could result in a 3 mile-wide crater on the planet’s surface.

Aside from calculating that risk, NASA scientists are also studying the carbon-rich asteroid to see if it could contribute to developing life here on Earth. In a briefing in August, NASA scientists stated that Bennu could help answer questions about the origins of both our solar system and Earth. The reason it might be able to do that is because it is a carbonaceous regolith, or an asteroid that has changed very little over the past 4.5 billion years.

OSIRIS-REx will reach Bennu in August of 2018, and it will study the asteroid for two years, creating a 3-D map of it in order to help scientists decide where to take a sample from. Rather than landing on the asteroid, the spacecraft will use its 11-foot robotic arm to collect the necessary material, which will take just five seconds. Then, OSIRIS-REx will start its return trip to Earth, arriving in 2023 and the sample will go to the Johnson Space Center in Utah to undergo analysis.

What could this news mean for the origins of life on Earth? NASA thinks a lot. What they expect to find is an untouched, very primitive environment with organic molecules remaining from when our solar system was formed. Bennu’s environment is untouched because it hasn’t had to face high heats and processing, which means it could be a lot like an environment that existed in our early solar system.

Studying the concentrations of amino acids within Bennu and determining if they are higher than the 20 amino acids that support life on Earth will be a huge goal. Another huge part of the research rests on the fact that the sample scientists will be studying is from a known environment, as opposed to fragments of meteorites that have been studied in the past.

Asteroids are no small thing to life on Earth. During a time between 4.1 and 3.8 billion years ago, asteroids constantly struck the Earth. This was also right around the time when life on Earth began. That means that these asteroids could have been what brought organic material and water to Earth in its infancy.

In spite of Bennu’s potential, it is still on NASA’s list of Potentially Hazardous Asteroids, because scientists believe there is a 1 in 2000 chance that it could hit Earth. That said, Bennu is exciting for a lot of scientists. Figuring out the molecular composition of the asteroid, its amino acids, nucleic acids, sugars and phosphates, could help determine what led to the beginnings of life on Earth.

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