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Researchers in Britain are examining a small amount, equivalent to a teaspoon, of a 4.5 billion-year-old asteroid that has journeyed millions of miles to reach Earth. This study has the potential to uncover the beginnings of life on our planet.
Scientists at the Natural History Museum (NHM) in London are currently analyzing a specimen obtained from asteroid Bennu.
The seemingly ordinary dark powder sample may provide insight into the fundamental inquiries surrounding the formation of Earth.
According to experts, this may contain important evidence about the creation of planets and our solar system.
Sara Russell, a professor and head of research at the Natural History Museum, shared with the PA news agency that they are currently experiencing great excitement as they have recently received a small amount of black powder from space.
She expressed her enthusiasm for obtaining a sample of asteroid Bennu, stating that it is believed to be from the early stages of the solar system’s formation over four and a half billion years ago.
“We believe that this entity emerged from a rotating disk of particles and gases, potentially containing elements from that specific era.”
Professor Russell has meticulously studied the sample enclosed in a nitrogen glovebox to prevent any contamination from exposure to air and maintain its original condition.
The assignment requires standing in front of a sealed box and using the gloves provided to perform experiments.
The sample potentially includes minerals such as clays that have the ability to retain large amounts of water, which could provide insight into Earth’s origins as a habitable, water-rich planet.
Additionally, there is a possibility that it contains a significant amount of carbon, potentially in the form of organic compounds. Further investigation is necessary to confirm this.
“Perhaps asteroids such as Bennu contributed vital nutrients to support the development of life on Earth.”
In September, Nasa’s Osiris-Rex mission successfully retrieved a sample from an asteroid and brought it back to Earth, marking the first time a US mission has accomplished this feat.
Researchers at the NHM are part of a global collaboration that has been granted a portion of the sample for analysis.
Bennu is an asteroid with a high carbon content, comprising about 5% of its mass, including some organic material.
The team also hypothesizes that the minerals may contain water from outer space, and studying these minerals will aid in testing the theory that asteroids brought water to Earth 4.5 billion years ago.
Professor Russell stated that during the formation of Earth, it was most likely extremely hot, causing substances like water to evaporate and disappear into the atmosphere. This would have resulted in a very dry planet in its early stages.
The inquiry is, what led us to inhabit this stunning blue planet adorned with vast oceans?
It is probable that the reason for this is due to the delivery of water by collisions with asteroids and comets from the outer region of our solar system.
We desire a deeper understanding of this process. By doing so, we may gain a better understanding of the likelihood of discovering habitable planets around other stars.
She stated, “It will aid in our comprehension of the beginnings of life.”
When asked about her ideal discovery, Professor Russell responded, “Simply having the sample is beyond my wildest dreams. But personally, I am excited to see if we can uncover grains that are not only ancient, but extremely ancient – formed before the asteroid and possibly even before our own solar system.”
“These particles could potentially be remnants from stars that existed prior to our own, making them incredibly intriguing and worth investigating.”
It is believed that Asteroid Bennu has a composition similar to that of the Winchcombe meteorite, which landed on Earth in 2021.
Despite being quickly collected, the Winchcombe meteorite was still exposed to our atmosphere and therefore, potentially contaminated.
The samples from Bennu, gathered in outer space, are still pure and untainted, serving as untouched time capsules that provide insight into the early stages of our solar system’s existence.
Ashley King, a UKRI Future Leaders Fellow at the Natural History Museum, stated that the museum possesses a top-tier collection of meteorites. However, the origins of many of these meteorites within the solar system are still unknown.
“By collecting this sample from the surface of asteroid Bennu, Nasa has revealed its origins.”
This implies that our discoveries can be viewed in a broader perspective and may aid in comprehending the source of organic materials and water that may have contributed to the development of life on our planet.
The Museum, along with the Open University, Oxford University, and the University of Manchester, is one of four UK institutes conducting research on samples from Nasa.