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How NASA Captured Asteroid Mud to Discover the Origins of Life Categorical Instances

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The OSIRIS-REx pattern return capsule (foreground) landed within the Utah desert on September 24, carrying samples collected from the near-Earth asteroid Bennu (background). 
Emily Lankiewicz

Capturing a chunk of an asteroid and bringing it to Earth is much more tough than it’s time-consuming. NASA’s OSIRIS-REx spacecraft launched on September 8, 2016, and commenced orbiting the skyscraper-sized asteroid Bennu on December 31, 2018. On October 20, 2020, it made a quick touchdown on Bennu’s floor to gather samples of the traditional rock. Simply greater than six months later, a part of the spacecraft started its journey house to Earth. And earlier this fall, that pattern assortment cannister landed, through parachute, at a Division of Protection proving floor in Utah about 80 miles west of Salt Lake Metropolis. The contents of that canister are older than Earth itself. Scientists will likely be finding out them for many years within the hope of unlocking the thriller of how life on Earth started—however they’ve already discovered sufficient to get them excited.

On the newest episode of the Smithsonian podcast “There’s Extra to That,” I spoke with Linda Shiner, the previous editor of Air & House journal, in regards to the challenges and triumphs of the OSIRIS-REx mission, and what scientists hope it’s going to educate us about how life on Earth started.

A transcript is beneath. To subscribe to “There’s Extra to That” and to take heed to previous episodes on J. Robert Oppenheimerthe OceanGate Titan catastrophe, Killers of the Flower Moon and extra, discover us on Apple PodcastsSpotify or wherever you get your podcasts.


[Clip from NASA teleconference from Johnson Space Center, Houston, Texas, October 11, 2023]

Shaneequa Vereen, NASA public affairs officer: Hi there and welcome to right now’s media telecon. At this time we’re discussing the preliminary findings of NASA’s OSIRIS-Rex asteroid pattern after its reveal earlier right now.

Chris Klimek: Earlier this fall, an area capsule landed within the Utah desert. It could sound like one thing out of “The X-Recordsdata,” however this was truly a deliberate touchdown 20 years within the making.

Dante Lauretta, OSIRIS-REx principal investigator: It’s nice to be right here at NASA’s Johnson House Heart, the place since September 25, when the OSIRIS-REx samples arrived, we’ve got been systematically and methodically entering into the science canister and finally to the pattern assortment gadget—the precise piece of spacecraft {hardware} that touched the floor of asteroid Bennu and picked up materials again in 2020.

Klimek: As Earth makes its yearlong journey across the solar, it often passes a small companion close by: an asteroid a couple of third of a mile in diameter named Bennu. Bennu was born across the similar time as the remainder of our photo voltaic system, so scientists are hopeful that by finding out the asteroid, we’ll get some clues about how life on Earth got here to be. So in 2016, after years of preparation, a NASA spacecraft left Earth and headed towards Bennu. It arrived there in 2018 and spent two years mapping the asteroid’s floor till it was lastly time to land. It grabbed a pattern of mud and rocks from Bennu’s floor in 2020. Greater than two years later, that pattern has now arrived. Dante Lauretta, the chief scientist on this mission, says he’s already excited in regards to the early findings from the pattern.

Lauretta: We’ve verified that Bennu is dominated by water-bearing clay minerals. We’ve discovered iron minerals within the type of iron sulfides and iron oxides, which themselves are indicative of formation in a water-rich setting. And, maybe most enjoyable, the pattern incorporates about 4.7 % by weight carbon, which is clearly the important ingredient for all life on Earth, and central to our astrobiology investigation.

Klimek: So what does this all imply? How do you land a spacecraft on an asteroid anyway? And why is NASA so excited a couple of tiny piece of area rock?

From Smithsonian journal and PRX Productions, that is “There’s Extra to That,” the present the place we will let ourselves really feel slightly delighted about four-and-a-half-billion-year-old mud particles from area. This episode is all a couple of mission named OSIRIS-REx. I’m Chris Klimek. Let’s prepare for launch.


I labored for Smithsonian’s Air & House journal for seven years, overlaying a lot of NASA missions, together with the launch of OSIRIS-REx again in 2016. So when the pattern assortment capsule landed again on Earth, I knew precisely who to name. Linda Shiner was the editor of Air & House and my former boss. We fell proper again into our outdated banter.

Klimek: You possibly can have a free copy of Smithsonian journal in case you can decode the acronym OSIRIS-REx with out trying it up.

Linda Shiner: And that’s a query for me?

Klimek (narration): In Linda’s protection, the acronym is a mouthful. OSIRIS-REx stands for Origins, Spectral Interpretation, Useful resource Identification and Safety-Regolith Explorer. You most likely would’ve guessed that, proper?

Shiner: Dante Lauretta, who’s the principal scientist on the mission, is the man who got here up with that. He mentioned on the press convention that we may blame him. So we’ll blame him for it.

Klimek: So we’re going to crank this all the way in which again. On the finish of September, a canister with some rock samples parachuted into the Utah desert. Why is that vital?

Shiner: It’s the primary time that that a lot of an asteroid has come again to Earth. It’s not the primary mission to discover an asteroid, however it’s the first NASA mission that returned samples from an asteroid. And the explanation that NASA desires these samples is that they will’t take their labs into area. They will take little devices into area to take footage of asteroids and comets and planets, and to research them by separating the colours mirrored from them with a machine referred to as a spectrograph. However to do an actual thorough evaluation, they should get items of this stuff again to Earth, to topic them to assessments in a laboratory.

Klimek: What are they hoping they’ll study by finding out these little items of Bennu, the massive asteroid?

Shiner: The large query is: “The place did life come from on Earth?” And all of NASA’s exploration, virtually all within the planetary system, has been directed towards that. All the Mars rovers are searching for the identical factor. They’re on Mars performing assessments with their very own little laboratories within the rovers, which in fact are a lot much less highly effective than the labs on Earth, with a view to discover out what the fabric of Mars is and whether or not there was water on Mars. And this can be a comparative research for Mars. Mars is a lifeless planet, we predict. We haven’t confirmed that there isn’t a microbial life there, however we consider that it’s. Earth is just not. Earth is teeming with life. And the query is: How, amongst these inside planets, was Earth the one one who may start life and maintain life? And so they consider that these solutions are contained within the primordial substances from which the planets and the asteroids and even the solar was made. And that’s why they’re trying on the asteroid, Bennu.

Klimek: Thanks. So this can be a piece of matter that’s in a laboratory on Earth, nevertheless it’s older than any substance on Earth.

Shiner: Older than any substance on Earth, and by no means subjected to the forces that Earth has been subjected to. So not squeezed like Earth. Not below the pressures and the warmth of Earth. So Bennu has no core just like the planets have. It’s actually a rubble pile. And that was one of many surprises that the spacecraft gifted to the scientists. They didn’t assume that Bennu was as loosely related, all of the items of Bennu, because it was. And so there was an arm on the spacecraft that reached out to the touch Bennu and to take a pattern. And that arm touched it and saved going and going and going. And one of many scientists mentioned in the event that they hadn’t had energy on the spacecraft to withdraw, that asteroid would’ve eaten their spacecraft.

Klimek: Wow. So how can finding out this pattern supply clues as to how life on Earth could have started?

Shiner: It’s a check of a concept, and the idea is that life wanted one thing from the photo voltaic system with a view to start. And this goes again to the Nineteen Fifties with one thing referred to as spark discharge experiments. You could have examine this in your highschool science e-book. I keep in mind it from highschool biology. These scientists tried to think about what the environment of Earth was like, they usually launched a spark. That is very Frankenstein-like. Their thought was: That is the lightning. Lightning was within the primordial Earth’s environment. And yeah, I keep in mind that ammonia was one of many substances within the environment.

And after they subjected that spark to it, they thought that they might get amino acids or no less than some natural supplies that might have developed into life, however they didn’t. And all of these discharge experiments weren’t profitable in producing the organics or the fundamentals of chemical compounds that might result in life in any abundance that they may clarify. And so the thought was, nicely, Earth didn’t have the entire stuff it wanted to make life. And that will need to have come from this extremely violent period of collisions the place asteroids and comets struck planets.

Klimek (narration): Like planets, asteroids and comets additionally orbit the solar. However their compositions are fairly totally different. All of it comes right down to what they’re product of. Comets are product of ice and mud, whereas asteroids like Bennu are largely rock.

Shiner: And those that struck our planet introduced water. And that’s one of many main discoveries of Bennu: that it has clay-like supplies, and clay varieties within the presence of water. So that is instructing the scientists that these supplies had been dropped at Earth by asteroids like Bennu, and subsequently we’ve got to know the composition of Bennu with a view to perceive how life may have began on this planet.

Klimek: Wow. In order that’s the principle objective of this mission there. I learn there was additionally a small probability that Bennu may strike Earth towards the top of the twenty first century.

Shiner: Sure. That’s one of many S’s in OSIRIS. The final “S” in OSIRIS stands for “safety.” Sure. It’s a near-Earth asteroid. So a lot of the asteroids, due to the mechanics of the composition of the early photo voltaic system, they orbit between Mars and Jupiter. However Bennu could be very, very shut, and it typically comes contained in the orbit of Earth. So it crosses Earth’s orbit. By finding out the celestial mechanics of each Earth and the asteroids, astronomers know which asteroids are more likely to cross Earth’s orbit on the time on the place that Earth is there in that orbit. And Bennu is a type of, nevertheless it’s 100 years out. And the probability—I believe I learn that it was the identical probability as knowledgeable golfer getting a gap in a single. That might make me afraid if it had been occurring subsequent yr.

Klimek: I imply, we’ve heard of golfers having a gap in a single, proper? That’s not some inconceivable state of affairs.

Shiner: Yeah. It may occur, is the purpose. And in case you’ll enable me, I can take you again all the way in which to the start once I assume this nice curiosity in asteroids began at NASA and on Earth. And that’s means again in 1994: A comet named Shoemaker-Levy impacted Jupiter, and we had a couple of yr’s discover of this. All the astronomers on Earth had pointed their telescopes towards Jupiter to see this affect. It was the primary time we’d ever seen an affect in actual time. And the Hubble House Telescope was in orbit, and the Galileo Telescope was on its solution to Jupiter. And from each perspective possible, we noticed this comet slam into Jupiter. And the large Jupiter, you’d assume he would simply swallow that comet and there could be no impact. However there have been results in its environment for years.

And it was a type of “there however for the grace of God” moments, as a result of these scientists and all people else who was seeing these footage thought, That would have been us. And from that second ahead, planetary protection turned essential. As a matter of truth, 4 years later, Congress mentioned, “NASA, go discover these asteroids. Go discover the comets. Go discover any object that might probably slam into Earth.”

Klimek: 1998 was additionally the yr we had an incoming asteroid film and an incoming comet film in theaters on the similar time. So clearly some screenwriters a pair years earlier than had been studying the paper and thought, “Ah, that is scary.”

Shiner: Yeah, that’s proper.

Klimek: How does making an attempt to intercept and land on an asteroid differ from attempting to do this with a planet? Is it merely the scale of the objects, or are there different elements?

Shiner: Dimension is a gigantic issue. They’re flight operators, identical to in a mission management, identical to NASA has mission management for astronauts.

Klimek (narration): OSIRIS-Rex’s flight path and pattern assortment was exactly deliberate and orchestrated by a workforce of navigation engineers. They directed the OSIRIS-REx mission from their base on Earth utilizing a mix of pc code and onboard cameras, very like a remotely piloted drone or rover. They had been capable of monitor the spacecraft utilizing a community of radio transmission stations often called the Deep House Community.

Shiner: So that they’re controlling this spacecraft, and there’s little or no gravity on an asteroid. And so having the ability to maintain the spacecraft there in orbit and in addition to match the rotation charge the asteroid is spinning … the spacecraft, with a view to attain out and contact the asteroid, has to imitate its charge of rotation. Now, this isn’t the primary time, by the way in which, we’ve touched an asteroid. The very first time was in 1996. We despatched a probe. The probe was referred to as NEAR Shoemaker, to not be confused with Shoemaker-Levy the comet, however named for a similar man, Eugene Shoemaker, very well-known within the planetary subject.

That probe went to the asteroid Eros, and it landed on it [in February 2001]. That was an extremely massive deal. And there have been landings since that point on asteroids, on comets. And we’ve got introduced samples again, not from an asteroid, however we did carry a pattern again from a comet, in an actual precursor to this mission. That mission was referred to as Stardust, and it flew via the tail of comet Wild 2.

I keep in mind in Air & House journal, our headline was, “Deliver Me the Tail of Wild 2.” And that’s precisely what Stardust did: It held up an arm, it appeared like slightly catcher’s mitt, and it was stuffed with aerogel, and it put it within the tail of that comet and introduced it again in a capsule that appears very very like the pattern return capsule of OSIRIS-REx. And it landed in, I believe additionally in Utah. And one of many scientists who’s main the research of life-making chemical compounds in OSIRIS-REx studied that pattern and located an amino acid for the primary time. So all people’s extraordinarily excited that not solely will there be amino acids … as a matter of truth, this scientist mentioned he could be shocked in the event that they didn’t discover amino acids within the Bennu pattern.

And a part of what they’re having the ability to perceive from finding out this stuff is the equipment that guided the formation of the photo voltaic system. So the Stardust probe, for instance, that appeared on the comet, they all the time believed that the comets existed the place they exist now: … They’re icy, in order that they’re very distant from the solar. They’re on the far reaches of the photo voltaic system. Research of that comet make scientists consider that the comets may have been shaped nearer to the solar, as a result of there’s proof of melting. So that they had been subjected to very excessive temperatures and pressures, they usually someway migrated to the outer photo voltaic system.

It’s the identical with Bennu’s dad or mum physique. So Bennu, a type of rocks that we predict may probably collide with Earth, is itself the sufferer of a collision. It was damaged off from its dad or mum. The dad or mum physique was in a farther orbit. It was a lot farther from the solar and someway migrated nearer to the solar. And people are mechanisms that aren’t completely understood but, however that these samples from Bennu would be capable of assist [scientists] perceive.

Klimek: So it arrives at its vacation spot and has to bodily accumulate the pattern someway. However first it has to match the orbit?

Shiner: Sure, it caught up with the asteroid and flew in formation with it and orbited it from numerous distances and mapped all the floor of the asteroid. They discovered a touchdown spot referred to as Nightingale. They thought that it was pretty easy, however with the imaginative and prescient that they’d on the time, there was a monster rock in the way in which that the arm of OSIRIS-REx needed to navigate round. It virtually magically prevented this boulder and obtained itself right down to the rubble pile that’s Bennu and grabbed a pattern and backed away.

Klimek: I believe that is one thing that folks don’t actually grasp after they examine area missions: these navigation issues that’ll be acquainted to anyone who turned the steering wheel to go round a pothole or one thing, besides that is occurring astronomical distances away, and also you’re attempting to make these choices based mostly on restricted info.

Shiner: And much more shocking than that, so it launched in 2016. At that time, your expertise is frozen. You possibly can’t use any of the advances that we’ve got between 2016 and 2023. You’ve already constructed the spacecraft, so its autonomous operations are being carried out by seven-year-old expertise, which is outdated! I imply, how lengthy have you ever had your current iPhone? And all of that code needed to be written for it upfront. So it’s a miracle to me. I simply can’t think about how they made it.

Klimek: So inform us in regards to the precise pattern assortment: bodily scraping slightly little bit of Bennu off and bringing it house.

Shiner: They’ve one thing like an air filter on the arm, which is fairly fantastic. And so there’s this disc. It’s like a clock. It has thickness to it, the disc does. And inside this disc is kind of a filtration or a blowing system, a reverse vacuum. And when the spacecraft disc is available in contact with Bennu, it huffs at it. It blows slightly little bit of nitrogen onto it, and the nitrogen poofs out this cloud of mud and rocks, and people enter the gathering gadget. After which it pulls again, and it closes the lid to seize no matter it has poofed off the floor. However the lid didn’t shut, as a result of it had been so profitable in creating this cloud {that a} rock obtained caught on the lid. So that they shortly introduced it again. They noticed the stuff spilling out, they usually introduced it again into the canister and shut the canister.

And after they opened it, you could possibly see that the lid had been propped open. You can see the rock that was there, and all of this black mud and rubble had gathered on the surface of it due to that. And truly it’s taken them an extended time on the conservation facility—which, by the way in which, was constructed model new for this mission—nevertheless it took them for much longer than they anticipated as a result of they’re very rigorously brushing that mud and capturing it and placing it in containers in order that on the finish of all of this, they’ll be capable of have a look at this 260 grams [about half a pound], I believe, of fabric and separate it and classify it and divide it for the entire scientists all over the world to look at.

Chris: How did the pattern of Bennu make it again right here to Earth?

Shiner: OSIRIS-REx has one thing referred to as a pattern return canister, and it seems slightly bit like a cupcake. The pattern was positioned again in a cylinder with the cap considerably closed, and that was retracted right into a pattern return canister. And that canister lives contained in the spacecraft. The spacecraft winged its means again. It left Bennu and labored its means again to Earth, and it dropped the pattern return canister. OSIRIS-REx didn’t come again via the environment. It dropped the canister, and it’s gone on to review one other Earth-crossing asteroid, Apophis, and the pattern return canister entered the environment and it got here in over California, is what I’m remembering. And, in fact, it goes via what spacecraft do after they undergo the environment. It heated. It has an aero shell that protected it on its return, and I believe it was at 5,000 ft the parachutes had been alleged to open.

What I recall is that the drogue chute was by no means seen, and the parachutes opened slightly bit later than anticipated, which is why no one was inhaling all of Utah for a number of minutes. So the parachutes introduced it down, after which there was a really attention-grabbing query. We noticed the capsule, and there was a number of TV protection that NASA offered. We noticed a fellow who was working on the Dugway Proving Floor stroll as much as it, and he was checking to ensure there was no unexploded ordnance, as a result of the Dugway Proving Floor is simply that: It’s a proving floor. They drop bombs there. And one of many reporters who was on the press name after this video mentioned, “You imply this factor got here all the way in which again from an asteroid and it may have landed on one thing and blown itself up?” And apparently that was a really small likelihood. A smaller likelihood than getting a gap in a single, I believe.

Klimek: OK, good. Yikes.

Shiner: They’re very, very cautious to maintain supplies from Earth from contaminating the capsule. And so it was hoisted by a helicopter and brought to a clear room there in Utah, after which there have been assessments completed, after which there was a nitrogen purge. So, nitrogen inert fuel can’t react with issues. They crammed the capsule with this inert fuel, after which they put that on a NASA plane and flew it to the Johnson House Heart, the place they took it from the NASA plane and put it in a clear room there on the Johnson House Heart, they usually eliminated the canister. The canister was put into what they name a glove field. You possibly can attain it solely with gloved fingers, so the conservators there can put their fingers into these gloves working in these nitrogen-filled glove bins in order that there’s no chance of Earth contamination, they usually’ll be capable of take away the pattern for research.

Klimek: Is that this purely about simply defending the integrity of the samples from Earth contamination, or is there any precise potential hazard of introducing one thing harmful that was native to Bennu?

Shiner: I believe they’re not anticipating any little inexperienced males.

Klimek: OK.

Shiner: I believe it’s all about Earth contamination, and that’s as a result of we’ve got samples from asteroids: They’re meteorites. They’ve been touchdown on Earth since there was Earth.

Klimek (narration): Meteors are tiny chunks of asteroids or comets that fall to Earth. After they enter our environment, they burn and provides us capturing stars. If that little bit of burning rock survives the journey and makes all of it the way in which to the bottom, we name them meteorites.

Shiner: And a few of them have taught scientists actually superb issues. If you wish to see them, there’s a gorgeous assortment on show on the Smithsonian Nationwide Museum of Pure Historical past. I simply was there a few days in the past trying on the meteorites. Considered one of them known as the Murchison meteorite. It landed in Australia—it’s most likely probably the most studied meteorite on the planet, and it has given scientists that perception that the amino acids and constructing blocks of proteins which might be the constructing blocks of RNA and DNA, the issues that make life attainable, that these got here from asteroids.

Klimek: Wow. What are a number of the hypotheses that they’re testing at this early stage?

Shiner: One is whether or not or not life on Earth may have began with a number of the supplies from asteroids. And they also’re searching for samples of natural supplies, supplies which have carbon in them, since carbon is current in all of life. And right here’s a extremely sort of fascinating factor. Between biotic supplies (that’s, natural dwelling supplies) and prebiotic (the identical chemical compounds, however they’re not utilized in dwelling processes) … all of them have one thing referred to as both right- or left-handedness. It’s referred to as chirality. On Earth—that is so bizarre—the entire natural supplies utilized in dwelling processes are left-handed. They’re formed—

Klimek: What?

Shiner: Sure. The best way that the molecules are constructed, they’re not symmetrical. So you’ll be able to’t place one on the opposite and have it’s symmetrical.

Klimek: OK. And what we imply by left-handed is that they’re asymmetrical?

Shiner: That’s proper. It’s asymmetrical towards the left. The supplies which have the identical kind of composition however are prebiotic, will not be utilized in life processes, are right-handed. Why is that?

Klimek: I’m asking you. Do we all know?

Shiner: No.

Klimek: OK.

Shiner: However asteroids will be capable of assist us perceive this stuff, and we’ll be capable of verify that, yep, all of those right-handed substances are right-handed on the asteroids, too. Or they’re left-handed on the asteroids. There will likely be a number of discoveries via Bennu.

Klimek: Linda Shiner is the longtime editor of Air & House / Smithsonian journal. Thanks a lot for speaking with us right now, Linda.

Shiner: My pleasure.


Klimek: We’ve a bonus for you for this week’s “banquet truth.” Linda was capable of share slightly little bit of a dialog with one of many lead OSIRIS-REx investigators.

Shiner: His title is Jason Dworkin, and he runs the astro supplies lab at Goddard spacecraft heart.

Klimek: In case you had been questioning, the official title for this lab is the Astrobiology Analytical Laboratory at NASA Goddard House Flight Heart. Anyway, Linda requested Jason how the samples of Bennu will journey to the totally different labs across the nation, and past, for evaluation.

Shiner: Will you are taking it in a briefcase that’s handcuffed to your wrist to hold it throughout the nation?

Jason Dworkin: No, we don’t do this.

Klimek (narration): The reply Jason gave her was extraordinarily surprising, although.

Dworkin: They’ll both be hand-carried—you are taking it on an airplane in a pouch with a letter saying “Don’t open this” from the curator—or it’ll be mailed insured.

Shiner: It will likely be mailed?

Dworkin: Sure.

Shiner: You’ll take one thing that had come again …

Dworkin: It occurs on a regular basis.

Shiner: … from billions of miles away and—

Dworkin: Different samples are mailed on a regular basis.

Shiner: Actually?

Dworkin: The U.S. Postal Service is a outstanding group.

Shiner: Nicely, they’re going to be delighted to listen to you say that. However what in the event that they misplaced some?

Dworkin: That hasn’t occurred. Genesis Curation has a system that they’ve been utilizing for many years. They’ve mailed moon rocks and all types of issues. It’s a must to signal for it.

Shiner: Certain. OK.

Dworkin: For registered mail.

Shiner: I’m glad to listen to that.

Klimek: “There’s Extra to That” is a manufacturing of Smithsonian journal and PRX Productions. From the journal, our workforce is me, Debra Rosenberg and Brian Wolly. From PRX, our workforce is Jessica Miller, Genevieve Sponsler, Adriana Rozas Rivera, Ry Dorsey and Edwin Ochoa. The chief producer of PRX Productions is Jocelyn Gonzales. Episode paintings is by Emily Lankiewicz. Truth-checking by Stephanie Abramson. Music is from APM Music.

I’m Chris Klimek. Thanks for listening.

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