HOUSTON (KTVX) — If you can get a scientist to say “wow,” then you’re in pretty impressive territory. According to NASA’s OSIRIS-REx asteroid researchers, they’ve been saying “wow” quite a bit since their asteroid sample landed on Earth.
This is only the beginning. They haven’t even opened the canister with the actual asteroid sample yet, said Sample Analyst Dr. Daniel Glavin.
“We picked the right asteroid, and we brought back the right samples,” Glavin said. “This stuff is an astrobiologist dream.”
On Sept. 24, OSIRIS-REx ended its nearly 4 billion-mile journey, exploring the solar system and gathering samples from near-Earth asteroid Bennu by releasing its sample capsule. The capsule made its way to the Utah desert floor. The sample canister was then removed and whisked from Dugway Proving Grounds to Johnson Space Center in Houston.
The samples — taken from the outside of the actual sample canister — are astonishing scientists, and preliminary analytics show the samples are 4.7% carbon-based. This is part of what is causing the “wow” factor since it’s the highest abundance of carbon in extraterrestrial samples that have ever been measured, according to NASA.
Scientists expected to see some particles from the asteroid on the outside of the sample collection head, called a TAGSAM (Touch-and-Go Sample Acquisition Mechanism), following its removal from the sample canister. They were surprised by just how much they found.
As expected, the samples are carbon-rich and show an abundance of water in the form of water-bearing clay fibers. There is also the presence of sulfide and iron oxide. All the elements present are needed for life, and scientists are hoping the samples can answer some of the questions surrounding life on our planet.
The sample has been held in a nitrogen-rich environment in a unique glove box inside a new laboratory at Johnson, designed specifically for the OSIRIS-Rex mission.
NASA Administrator Bill Nelson showed off the first pictures of the samples during the conference. He said that by having the first asteroid sample ever in the United States, “We are going to have answers to questions that we don’t even know what the questions are.”
Scientists anticipated getting a cupful of the black dust and rubble but are still unsure exactly how much was grabbed. The expected cupful is far more than the teaspoon or so that Japan brought back from a pair of missions.
They are carefully curating these samples before opening the canister, as they are as valuable as the ones contained in the TAGSAM.
“This sample return mission is an important part of an integrated planetary exploration strategy answering fundamental questions on the formation and evolution of our solar system,” said Eileen Stanbery, Chief Scientist at NASA Johnson Space Center.
NASA currently has 40 space missions exploring our solar system. Seven of them are studying asteroids. The exploration of this can answer questions about life on Earth and give insight into how to avoid collisions with near-Earth asteroids.
Once the samples are archived, the team will dole out particles to researchers around the world. They will also save a fair amount for future analysis when better technology should be available.
NASA has another asteroid-chasing spacecraft on a Florida launch pad ready to blast off later this week. The destination will be a rare asteroid made of metal named Psyche. No samples will be coming back.
The Associated Press contributed to this report.