Manchester Uni to Study Asteroid Bennu Sample in NASA Mission

The University of Manchester is to receive a sample from asteroid Bennu, which will help unveil secrets of our Solar System.

The sample was collected as part of NASA's OSIRIS-REx mission, which returned to earth today, Sunday, 24 September.

It is NASA's first mission to collect a sample from an asteroid sample and is the largest asteroid sample ever returned to Earth, estimated to hold around 250g of Bennu's material - rocks and dust collected from the asteroid's surface.

NASA's Johnson Space Center will release 25% of the sample to a cohort of more than 200 members from more than 35 globally distributed institutions, including a team of scientists from The University of Manchester's Department of Earth and Environmental Sciences, to analyse the sample.

Over two years, the team will work to understand the history of the asteroid, its components and its precursors.

The findings will ultimately help scientists to understand more about the origin of the Solar System and of organics and water that could have led to life on Earth. The data collected also aids our understanding of asteroid impacts on Earth.

Dr Sarah Crowther, Research Fellow in the Department of Earth and Environmental Sciences at The University of Manchester, said: "It is a real honour to be selected to be part of the OSIRIS-REx Sample Analysis Team, working with some of the best scientists around the world. We're excited to receive samples in the coming weeks and months, and to begin analysing them and see what secrets asteroid Bennu holds.

"A lot of our research focuses on meteorites, and we can learn a lot about the history of the Solar System from them. But meteorites get hot coming through Earth's atmosphere and can sit on Earth for many years before they are found, so the local environment and weather can alter or even erase important information about their composition and history.

"Sample return missions like OSIRIS-REx are vitally important because the returned samples are pristine, we know exactly which asteroid they come from and can be certain that they are never exposed to the atmosphere so that important information is retained."

Asteroid Bennu is rich in carbon, meaning it could contain the chemical building blocks of life. Every few years, it flies close to Earth, crossing Earth's orbital path, making it accessible to a mission like OSIRIS-REx. Bennu also has a (very small) chance of hitting Earth next century, meaning studying Bennu can help us learn how to be prepared to defend against an impact.

The spacecraft launched on 8 September 2016 and arrived at Bennu in December 2018, and, after mapping the asteroid for almost two years, collected a sample from the surface on 20 October 2020 before landing today, 24 September.

OSIRIS-REx released its sample return capsule into the atmosphere as it flew by Earth. The capsule descended by parachute, landing in the Utah western desert before being transported to NASA's Johnson Space Center, from where it will now be dispatched to scientists around the world.

The OSIRIS-REx spacecraft will set off on a new mission to explore asteroid Apophis, which it will take six years to reach, while the sample from Bennu will continue to offer generations of scientists a window into the time when the Sun and planets were forming about 4.5 billion years ago.

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