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Asteroid samples collected by NASA may be fragments of an ancient ocean world

After months of unsuccessful attempts, in January NASA finally managed to open a container with samples of the asteroid Bennu and found a large amount of material delivered by the OSIRIS-REx apparatus. Now the head of the mission says that this space object may turn out to be a planetesimal – the building block of a planet that once belonged to an oceanic world.

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Dante Lauretta, a planetary scientist at the University of Arizona and principal investigator for the OSIRIS-REx mission, said in an interview that his working hypothesis is that Bennu was once part of an ancient oceanic world.

Although Lauretta himself calls it “very speculative”, the high levels of phosphates in Bennu’s samples hint at just that. Phosphorus is one of the building blocks of life and was discovered last year in plumes from the subsurface oceans of Enceladus, Saturn’s icy moon. Because water is a prerequisite for life as we know it, ocean worlds like these are a prime target for missions looking for traces of life beyond Earth.

OSIRIS-REx was launched in September 2016 and arrived at the 4.5 billion-year-old asteroid Bennu in December 2018, covering about 320 million kilometers. The probe returned to Earth in September 2023 with a cargo of samples, which turned out to be much more than planned. According to mission analyst Daniel Glavin, these samples are “a real dream for astrobiologists.”

The importance of this mission is that scientists finally have access to material from space that has not been spoiled by passage through the Earth’s atmosphere. Meteorites that fall to Earth are heated by the fall, and if they do not burn up completely, they are transformed in the process and become “contaminated” with earth elements at the site of impact. It’s hard to know exactly where they came from. In the case of Bennu, the samples were obtained directly from the original source.

Further study will allow us to better understand the history of the formation of the solar system and tell us more about how life arose from primordial cosmic matter at the dawn of time.

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