NASA says Bennu data hints at an unprecedented asteroid sample

Despite the pandemic, NASA is gearing up to conduct an asteroid sample mission later this month, an event that will — assuming it is successful — return some fine gravel from the asteroid Bennu to researchers on Earth. The space agency has spent many months studying the asteroid and collecting data, as well as several months scouting out the best locations from which to pluck the sample. In an update on the matter, NASA said a handful of newly published studies on the asteroid hint at exciting future discoveries.

Bennu is a large, rocky, and somewhat angular asteroid that is currently being orbited by OSIRIS-REx, the NASA spacecraft that will touchdown on the asteroid in the coming days in an effort to collect a physical sample. This sample will be securely packaged and then sent on a long return trip back to Earth, giving researchers the opportunity to study the materials in a very hands-on way.

According to the space agency, a total of six studies were recently published that detail different elements of the asteroid, including one exciting tease: the Bennu asteroid sample may be unlike any other sample researchers have gotten from meteorites found on Earth. As it turns out, the asteroid's surface is covered in organic material containing carbon, including potentially a form associated with biology.

OSIRIS-REx principal investigator Dante Lauretta explained, "The abundance of carbon-bearing material is a major scientific triumph for the mission. We are now optimistic that we will collect and return a sample with organic material – a central goal of the OSIRIS-REx mission."

The primary sample site for this mission, Nightingale, is likely to have some of this organic material, according to the space agency, meaning that researchers may get the unprecedented chance to study a carbon-rich asteroid sample and use it to unlock secrets about Bennu's long-lost parent asteroid origins.