NASA’s OSIRIS-REx spacecraft is all set to perform its first attempt to touch-and-go (TAG) sample collection on the near-earth asteroid Bennu. However, ahead of the operation on 20 October, scientists have detailed upon the material that can be found from the surface of the asteroid in a series of papers.

Researchers are claiming that Bennu’s samples might present us with never seen before materials. In one of the papers, led by Amy Simon from NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center, scientists talk of the possibility of finding hydrated minerals and organic material in the sample. In a press statement, researchers mention that the form of carbon present in this organic matter is associated with biology.

The four candidate landing sites on Bennu. Image: NASA

The team has also used the spacecraft’s visible and infrared spectrometer to establish that carbonate minerals make up some of the asteroid’s geological features. According to the statement, carbonate minerals often precipitate from “hydrothermal systems that contain both water and carbon dioxide” and some of the locations where scientists think carbonate exists are near the primary sample collection site, the Nightingale crater. Hence the experts are optimistic about finding a bit of carbonate in the returned sample.

Now if Bennu is proven to be carrying carbonate, then it means that its parent body had an “asteroid-scale hydrothermal system of water,” or an ancient river that flowed through cracks and has now left behind carbonate.

Hannah Kaplan, co-author of the papers spoke to Popular Science on the importance of the discovery. The material found on the asteroid could answer how or which form of organic matter had led to the presence of life on Earth.

The study has been published in the journals Science and Science Advances on 8 October.

NASA had launched OSIRIS-REx in 2016 to travel to Bennu and return with the samples. After its landing in the crater, the craft will depart Bennu in 2021 and it will deliver the collected sample to Earth on 24 September 2023.

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