4.5 billion-year-old asteroid could reveal the origin of life on Earth | Science and technology news


Samples of a 4.5 billion-year-old asteroid could reveal the origin of life on the planet.

The teaspoon-sized specimen, taken from the asteroid Bennu, is being examined by researchers at the Natural History Museum (NHM).

The black dust-like sample could help shed light on some of the biggest questions about how Earth formed.

It may contain important clues to the formation of the planets and our solar system, experts say.

Professor Sara Russell, senior research leader at the NHM, said: “We’re really excited at the moment because we’ve just received a tiny teaspoon of black powder, but it’s actually come from space.”

She added: “We’re really excited to get a piece of asteroid Bennu because we think this asteroid dates back to the very earliest times of the solar system, when the solar system and the sun and the planets formed four and a half billion years ago.

“It’s formed from a swirling disc of dust and gas, and we think we might have components here from that time period.”

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Asteroid sample returned to Earth

Prof Russell has already examined the sample, which is contained in a nitrogen glove box, meaning it is not contaminated by exposure to air, to preserve its natural state.

The task involves standing in front of the sealed box and using the attached gloves to perform experiments.

Explaining what the sample may contain, she said: “We also think it contains minerals like clay that trap lots of water, so it could hold lots of water and that could tell us how Earth became a watery habitable planet .

“We also think that it may contain several percent of carbon, which may be in the form of organic carbon, so we must investigate this further.

“But it could be that asteroids like Bennu also provided the nutrients needed for life to flourish on Earth.”

The asteroid, which orbits the Sun about 120,000,000 kilometers (74,564,543 miles) away, is believed to be a “pristine time capsule from the beginning of the solar system” that provides clues about Earth’s origins, according to the Natural History Museum.

It has the potential to harm Earth and is considered the most dangerous asteroid in the solar system, the museum added.

In September, NASA Osiris-Rex (Origins, Spectral Interpretation, Resource Identification and Security – Regolith Explorer), became the first US mission to collect a sample from an asteroid and return it to Earth.

Researchers at NHM are among an international team that has received some of the samples for analysis.

Bennu is a carbon-rich asteroid containing about 5% by weight, some of which is organic.

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The team also believes it may have extraterrestrial water trapped in its minerals.

Analysis of these minerals will help the team test the theory that asteroids delivered water to our planet 4.5 billion years ago.

Prof Russell said: “When the Earth formed it probably formed really, really hot and things like water would have just boiled up and escaped into space, it would have been very dry when it first formed.

“So the question is, how did we get to be on this beautiful blue planet covered in oceans?

“And it’s likely that the answer is because water was brought to it by impacts from asteroids and comets from the outer solar system.”

The museum is one of four UK institutes studying samples from NASA, along with the Open University, Oxford University and the University of Manchester.


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