HOUSTON, Tx. (ABC4) – If you can get a scientist to say “wow,” then you’re in pretty impressive territory. And according to NASA’s OSIRIS-REx asteroid researchers, they’ve been saying “wow” quite a bit since their asteroid sample landed on Earth.
And they haven’t even opened the canister with the asteroid sample yet, according to Sample Analyst Dr. Daniel Glavin.
The samples are astonishing scientists, and preliminary analytics are showing 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 has ever been measured according to NASA.
The samples are, as expected, 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.
On Sept. 24, OSIRIS-REx ended its nearly 4 billion-mile journey, exploring the solar system and gathering samples from a near-Earth asteroid named Bennu, by releasing its sample capsule. The capsule made its way to the Utah desert floor and the sample canister was removed and whisked from Dugway Proving Grounds to Johnson Space Center in Houston.
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. Nelson pointed out 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.”
The samples shown were samples taken from the outside of the actual sample canister, which has yet to be opened. 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 but were surprised to find more than anticipated.
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,
Dante Lauretta, OSIRIS-REx Principal Investigator from the University of Arizona explained the types of samples they are seeing and some of the techniques that will be used in analyzing them. The floor of the capsule containment area is littered with chunks of the asteroid that have the dark appearance of carbon and the elemental shapes, when seen through an electron microscope, can be identified as the carbon fibers as well as the iron oxide and Sulfide.
He was particularly excited by the use of X-ray computed tomography which allows scientists to see inside of the rocks to observe textures and distributions of different minerals and figure out the best place to make cuts for samples.
Dr. Glavin remarked what everyone at the conference seemed to be feeling, “We picked the right asteroid and we brought back the right samples. This stuff is an astrobiologist dream.”
NASA currently has 40 space missions exploring our solar system with 7 of them studying asteroids. The exploration of which can answer questions about life on Earth as well as give insight into how to avoid collisions with near-Earth asteroids.
NASA will make its discoveries public as the TAGSAM is opened and more information becomes available. Stay tuned to ABC4.com for updates.