EXPERT REACTION: NASA's OSIRIS-REx digs for dirt on asteroid Bennu

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NASA has just successfully landed the OSIRIS-REx spacecraft on a lumpy asteroid called Bennu and collected a sample of dirt from the surface to try and help us decipher how the solar system formed.

Organisation/s: Swinburne University of Technology, The University of New South Wales, The University of Newcastle, Western Sydney University, The Australian National University, Curtin University, University of Southern Queensland

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Expert Reaction

These comments have been collated by the Science Media Centre to provide a variety of expert perspectives on this issue. Feel free to use these quotes in your stories. Views expressed are the personal opinions of the experts named. They do not represent the views of the SMC or any other organisation unless specifically stated.

Professor Phil Bland is Director of the Space Science and Technology Centre at Curtin University

Planetary scientists at Curtin’s Space Science and Technology Centre are part of the mission science team for OSIRIS-REx, and will be among the first researchers in the world to analyse samples of asteroid Bennu.

This will be the most pristine solar system material ever returned to Earth, and will give us unique insights into the origins of our solar system.

You’ll find SSTC researchers on science teams for every sample return mission of the modern era, past, present, and future. That experience, and the world class analytical instrumentation at Curtin’s John de Laeter Centre, make for a winning combination.  

Last updated: 21 Oct 2020 4:58pm
Declared conflicts of interest:
None declared.
Geoff Bryan is a PhD Candidate in the Centre for Astrophysics and Supercomputing at Swinburne University of Technology

The asteroid Bennu largely consists of carbonaceous chondrite material, a rare left-over from the formation of our solar-system. Carbonaceous chondrites formed in the solar system's cold outer reaches early in its history and are principally made of substances that would sublime/melt away  in its hotter inner regions. On Earth they’re uncommon compared to stony and iron meteorites, but are of great interest because they contain lots of organic (carbon) compounds which may provide hints about the origins of life. The most famous terrestrial carbonaceous chondrite is the Murchison meteorite which landed with a bang near the small town of Murchison in Eastern Victoria in 1969. When ground-down and dissolved, the organic material within the meteorite was said to have smelled like rotten peanut butter.

However, when meteors flash through the atmosphere their surfaces are heated and chemically altered by friction. Therefore, scientists are very keen to obtain an uncontaminated, unaltered sample of this kind of material kept “fresh” by the cold of space in the regions beyond the Earth’s orbit.  

Today NASA’s OSIRIS-REx probe collected a sample from Bennu’s surface and it next challenge is to bring home its tasty sample and drop it off in Utah, under parachute in September 2023.

Last updated: 21 Oct 2020 4:56pm
Declared conflicts of interest:
None declared.
Mary Adam is an Astronomy Educator at the Adelaide Planetarium in the University Of South Australia

What’s exciting about this NASA mission is that they’re going to gather dust from the asteroid’s surface and it’ll be sent back to earth for analysis. Whilst this is a first for NASA, the Japanese space agency (JAXA) landed their Hayabusa2 on the asteroid 162173 Ryugu on June 27, 2018, which returned asteroid samples that are due to land on Earth (Woomera, South Australia!) on December 6 this year. 

Asteroids (which means ‘Star-Like’) are the “big brothers” of meteoroids. They range in size from 1 metre to larger than 100 kilometres. 

The asteroid Bennu is a carbonaceous chondrite; rich in carbon and water,  which is what we understand to be the building blocks of life. Those molecules in this primitive state will give us the best look at exactly what was happening during the formation of our Solar System 4.5 billion years ago.  The probe will blast nitrogen gas onto Bennu’s surface which will send that pristine dust upwards where it’ll be collected by the probe and sent back to Earth.  Inside the cannisters the dust will also be protected from the effects of re-entry of our atmosphere. That’s also a major factor. While it’s not uncommon for space rocks to hit Earth, they do burn up as they fall through our atmosphere.

Scientists will be analysing data from these samples for years to come.

Last updated: 21 Oct 2020 2:53pm
Declared conflicts of interest:
None declared.
Associate Professor John Culton is Director at the Centre for Sustainable Planetary and Space Resources in the School of Civil, Environmental, and Mining Engineering at The University of Adelaide

Despite a growing body of knowledge and understanding regarding the formation and makeup of the solar system, every time we explore an asteroid, a nearly intact component of the early solar system, we learn something surprising. Thus, this kind of cutting-edge achievement provides us with additional “ground truth” regarding how these objects were formed, what they are made out of, and how they are put together…..all of which is critical information which helps the Centre for Sustainable Planetary and Space Resources assist in the effort to support long-term human presence and exploration beyond low-Earth orbit via the sustainable provisioning of locally-sourced fuel, air, water, food, and materials. We congratulate the NASA OSIRIS-Rex team on their fantastic success.

Last updated: 21 Oct 2020 2:51pm
Declared conflicts of interest:
None declared.
Professor Paulo de Souza is Head of School for the School of Information and Communication Technology at Griffith University

Osiris-Rex spacecraft has a number of engineering challenges to collect lose pieces of materials at the surface of Benny Asteroids. This sample return mission will bring these samples back to Earth in 2023.

Asteroids are an important piece of the complex puzzle to understand the evolution of our Solar System. Bring pieces of them, different from analysing meteorites, can bring more insights into their composition. Also this mission, like other missions from Jaxa and ESA, is an important step towards mining asteroids.

Last updated: 21 Oct 2020 2:45pm
Declared conflicts of interest:
None declared.

Professor Volker Hessel is Research Director of the Centre for Sustainable Planetary and Space Resources at the University of Adelaide

NASA's coming landing on an asteroid will be a landmark in the exploration of celestial bodies.

Asteroids are likely to be the richest resource for future resource utilisation.

NASA has pioneered the In-Situ Resource Utilisation (ISRU) concept which looks to address space exploration’s historic reliance on Earth-based materials by proposing an off-world, self-contained resource chain using space-based resources.

But the cost-mass conundrum of bringing exploration materials (such as leaching solutions) to other planets and asteroids still needs to be solved before any other formidable challenges may be tackled. Technologies may need to be conceptualised from first principals in a disruptive manner, rather than taking the most advanced technology of today.

The University of Adelaide’s Centre for Sustainable Planetary and Space Resources is bringing together collective exploration, mining, manufacturing and engineering research strengths to address some of these challenges.

Last updated: 21 Oct 2020 2:28pm
Declared conflicts of interest:
None declared.
Kim Ellis Hayes is a Scientist Astronaut Candidate, Senior Lecturer Space Law & Research, and Director of Earth Space Tech, an Adjunct Faculty for the International Space University

It’s important for us to chase asteroids and test technology used to extract extra-terrestrial materials. With the interest in commercial exploitation of materials on asteroids and celestial bodies, it's important to establish the mineralogical composition of these space resources and to establish the orderly and fair utilisation of these resources.

Testing the chemical composition as well as the crystal structure of the materials sought for in situ resource utilisation in space is the next step to determining how we can expand human presence into the solar system. International dialogue on the status of space resources in terms of ownership and utilisation is very much on the agenda of the United Nations Office for Outer Space Affairs.

The Hague Space Resource Governance Working group published the building blocks for the development of an international framework on space resource utilisation this year (I am an official observer and contributed to these building blocks). Establishing technical competency is the first step to enabling deep space missions that seek to travel further into the solar system and allow us to explore the universe.

Last updated: 21 Oct 2020 2:25pm
Declared conflicts of interest:
None declared.
Professor Jonti Horner is from the Centre for Astrophysics at the University of Southern Queensland

It’s a great mission, and fantastic to see them being so successful in their attempts to play tag with an asteroid! I’m absolutely thrilled to see that today’s manoeuvre went without a hitch - so it seems really likely that they will manage to gather a decent amount of asteroidal material.

But we have to wait for a few days to confirm that, and to see just how much material they picked up! We’re in for a long wait before we can see what any material they picked up will teach us - the sample isn’t scheduled to be returned to Earth until 2023 - but once it does reach Earth, it’ll be fascinating to see what we can learn from it. It may only be a few tens of grams of dust and debris - but it could prove key to helping our understanding of the history of the Solar System.

It will also shed light on the delivery of material to the Earth in its youth, and throughout the history of our planet - which will have implications for our understanding of the origin and development of life on Earth! It’s an amazing technological feat - and missions like Osiris-Rex and the Japanese Hayabusa2 are really pushing the boundaries of what we can achieve in space.

They’re even laying the ground work for our capability to deal with potentially threatening asteroids in the future - and for us also to be able to go to those asteroids and extract resources from them! So it’s a really exciting time to be involved in planetary science, and to work studying the Solar System’s small bodies.

Last updated: 21 Oct 2020 2:21pm
Declared conflicts of interest:
None declared.
Professor Andrew Dempster is Director of the Australian Centre for Space Engineering Research (ACSER) at the University of New South Wales (UNSW)

The OSIRIS-REx sample return mission is of interest to Australia for a number of reasons. First, with Australia committing to NASA's Artemis program under its Moon to Mars (M2M) initiative, Australia needs a niche activity in space. That niche can be the extraction of water to create hydrogen and oxygen for rocket fuel, which can first be done on the moon, and later from asteroids such as Bennu.

When launching from Earth, Earth's gravity requires a lot of fuel to lift fuel, rather than payload. If you can get that fuel from low-gravity locations in space such as asteroids, launches from Earth can become much lighter and cheaper. Second, Australia has skin in the sample return game, being the landing place in 2010 for Japan's Hayabusa mission to asteroid Itokawa and for Hayabusa-2 to asteroid Ryugu later this year.

Last updated: 21 Oct 2020 2:17pm
Declared conflicts of interest:
None declared.
Dr Rebecca Allen is from the Centre for Astrophysics and Supercomputing at Swinburne University of Technology

NASA's OSIRIS-REx has just touched down on asteroid Bennu to collect material from the carbon-rich space rock for analysis on Earth. These missions are extremely challenging but can have a high reward as they help astronomers unlock secrets of the early Universe. Asteroids like Bennu are the most common type and have remained mostly unchanged for billions of years, unlike our planet where the surface is reshaped by weather and geology frequently.

Last updated: 21 Oct 2020 2:10pm
Declared conflicts of interest:
None declared.
Dr Hannah Schunker is an astrophysicist specialising in understanding the interior of the Sun and stars working as a lecturer at The University of Newcastle

Asteroids and comets are relics from the formation of the solar system when the force of gravity drove the interstellar dust to form small rocks, and the rocks to form asteroids and comets, and the asteroids and comets to form planets. They are thought to have brought water to Earth instigating the beginning of life.

Two missions, the Japanese mission Hayabusa2 bringing dust back from Ryugu, and NASA's OSIRIS-REx returning from Bennu, are bringing back the first extra-terrestrial body samples, other than the Moon, that humans have ever brought to Earth.

To avoid the issue of having to re-launch from an asteroid, OSIRIS-REx is designed not to land on the surface, but only get close enough to vacuum up some dust from just above the surface, requiring much less energy than a complete launch. OSIRIS-REx is essentially a very sophisticated vacuum cleaner.

By bringing the vacuum bag back to Earth, scientists will be able to determine whether they originated from the destruction of the same larger parent body, or if they formed from a number of smaller rocks that smashed and stuck together. The contents of the dust may even reveal the origins of life.

Last updated: 21 Oct 2020 2:08pm
Declared conflicts of interest:
None declared.
Luke Steller is a PhD candidate at the Australian Centre for Astrobiology at The University of New South Wales (UNSW)

NASA’s spacecraft OSIRIS-REx touched down overnight on an asteroid called Bennu orbiting between the Earth and Mars. Although taking around two years to reach the asteroid, the touchdown lasted only approx.16 seconds, just enough time to suck up a small handful of sand grains. However, scientists around the world are very excited by the news, as these samples may provide key insight into how life formed on Earth. 

Asteroids such as Bennu (called carbonaceous chondrites) are known to carry a wide range of carbon compounds, which would have been falling on the Earth 4 billion years ago when life was forming. Scientists studying the origin of life consider these compounds as the key building blocks, the ingredients in the 'primordial soup' which may have come together in just the right way for life to form. However, so far all we have to study these carbon compounds delivered from space are meteorites (asteroids that have fallen to Earth), which landed recently, after life formed, and therefore may be contaminated. As the samples from Bennu won’t be contaminated by the Earth’s atmosphere, they will give us one of the first insights into what kind of molecules were actually available on the early Earth, helping us understand what conditions are needed for life to form. 

So far, all we know about the building blocks for life delivered from space has come from meteorites that have already fallen to Earth, which may be contaminated. The Bennu samples are really exciting as they may give us a glimpse into what organic molecules were really around on the early Earth, which may have been the key ingredients in the formation of life.

Last updated: 21 Oct 2020 2:07pm
Declared conflicts of interest:
None declared.
Professor Steven Freeland is a researcher in international law at Western Sydney University

As the ABC story indicates, this is another step forward in our progress as to how to land on celestial bodies like this asteroid and also how to obtain samples of their ‘soil’. From an international law perspective, this is an appropriate and lawful activity in space and, if successful, will also promote our understanding of space and the development of space science. 

These types of activities take place at the same time that there is increased interest in landing on the Moon and, perhaps later, Mars, and ultimately undertaking activities to exploit and utilise the natural resources of those bodies. Not only is this technologically very challenging, but it raises many legal, geopolitical, economic and philosophical issues. Many countries are pursuing their plans to engage in such activities and there are many conversations about what rules and behavioural best practices are and will be appropriate to regulate how any such activities might be conducted. 

Just last week, for example, NASA publicised the terms of its ‘Artemis Accords’, which address some of these questions through bilateral (non-binding) agreements with a number of other agencies (including the Australian Space Agency). The principles set out in those agreements, together with the work done by many NGOs, academics, other governments and elements of civil society, as well as the work of industry, are all important inputs that will inform broad and open multilateral discussions on ‘the exploration, exploitation and utilisation of space resources’, scheduled to take place among the 95 Member States of the United Nations Committee on the Peaceful Uses of Outer Space (UNCOPUOS) next year.  

Last updated: 21 Oct 2020 2:05pm
Declared conflicts of interest:
Steven declares that he been appointed by UNCOPUOS to co-chair those discussions.
Associate Professor Charley Lineweaver is from the School of Earth Sciences in the College of Science at the Australian National University (ANU)

Bennu is an Earth-crossing asteroid discovered in 1999 by the LINEAR program designed to find threats to the inhabitants of the Earth. The 'reverse vacuum cleaning operation' called Touch And Go lasted a few seconds. 

Landing on the rapidly spinning asteroid was like jumping onto a spinning merry-go-round.

Bennu is a very dark carbonaceous chondrite rich in volatile material. It is actively spewing off material and can almost be considered a comet.

Our current knowledge of the elemental composition of the Sun does not come from looking at the Sun, but comes from analysis of meteoritic material from carbonaceous chondrites like Bennu. The OSIRIS-REx mission is part of our hunt for where we come from and how the Earth formed about 4.5 billion years ago.

Last updated: 21 Oct 2020 2:04pm
Declared conflicts of interest:
None declared.
Katarina Miljkovic is an ARC DECRA Fellow at Curtin University

It is fantastic to see what appears to be a successfully-operated sample collection in the early hours of today. This is a great step for planetary science. This is the second ever asteroid sample return mission, following on JAXA’s Hayabusa 15 years ago.

The collected dust sample from Bennu could provide information about the absolute age of the Solar System and even provide insights into pre-solar chemistry, which are fundamental questions about our origins in the Universe.

Curtin University’s Prof Phil Bland is part of the science team, once the sample is back on Earth, that will have a chance to analyse some of the samples.

Last updated: 21 Oct 2020 2:03pm
Declared conflicts of interest:
None declared.
Jake Clark is a PhD Candidate in planetary astrophysics based at the University of Southern Queensland

There's such a buzz around the OSIRIS-REx landing on Bennu throughout the planetary and astronomical communities, and it's not hard to see why. What we're going to learn fromOSIRIS-REx's sample of Bennu is going to help us answer a lot of questions within planetary and exoplanetary science.

Asteroids like Bennu are leftover material from when the Solar System first formed well over four billion years ago. We had a rough idea of how planets formed until the first few exoplanets were discovered 30 years ago, and those discoveries completely changed our understanding of planetary formation. Having an asteroid sample from Bennu is really going to help us in this regard to better understand how our Solar System first formed and evolved.

Knowing exactly how our Solar System formed will help planetary astrophysicists like myself know how rocky-worlds in other planetary systems form and evolve. By knowing the composition of other rocky worlds, we can better model their potential habitability and thus help the human endeavour of finding another world that truly resembles our own!

Last updated: 21 Oct 2020 2:01pm
Declared conflicts of interest:
None declared.
Dr Brad Tucker is a Research Fellow and Outreach Manager at Mt. Stromlo Observatory at the Australian National University

OSIRIS-REx is an awesome mission. It, and JAXA’s mission Hayabusa2 are impressive feats of engineering. Imagine driving down the highway, rolling down the window, and reaching your arm out to grab some dirt off another car on the highway. That is the space-equivalent of what OSIRIS-REx just did. Bringing the samples back to Earth from the asteroid Bennu will hopefully help unlock clues about the origin of our Solar System and even potential life in it. At the same time, this technology paves the waves for future missions, like to the Moon, to be able to extract material like ice to support our future in space. We are living in an exciting era of space exploration!

Last updated: 21 Oct 2020 1:56pm
Declared conflicts of interest:
None declared.
Professor Trevor Ireland is from the Research School of Earth Sciences in the College of Science at The Australian National University (ANU)

These missions are important because they provide samples from asteroids which are sending us meteorites. With a sample return, we get to analyse these asteroids as they are in space (not after the burn up of meteorites). This gives us a history of the body itself.

For instance, analysis of Itokawa particles from Hayabusa mission showed that this body is very young (less than 8 million years old). There have only ever been five sample recovery missions (Apollo, Luna, Stardust, Genesis, Hayabusa) so they are significant events.

Last updated: 21 Oct 2020 1:54pm
Declared conflicts of interest:
None declared.

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