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"It looks like a Schrödinger sample": dust from the asteroid Bennu brought to Earth surprised scientists

Dmytro IvancheskulNews
Researchers still cannot fully open the container with samples. Source: NASA/collage by OBOZ.UA

NASA scientists have managed to retrieve and examine more than 70 grams of dust and pebbles that were brought to Earth from the asteroid Bennu as part of the OSIRIS-REx mission. This amount is already enough to recognize the mission as successful, especially since the findings surprised the researchers.

This is stated in an article published in the scientific journal Nature. The container with the collected samples was delivered more than two months ago, but NASA had a problem with its opening, which has not yet been fully resolved.

So far, more than 70 grams of samples have been removed from the container using tweezers. Last month, researchers discovered that 2 of the 35 screws securing the container's lid could not be undone. The problem is that the container is in a special box that protects the samples from terrestrial contamination, so it is not possible to simply take another tool to open the container. NASA is currently making new tools that will help open the container, which has traveled billions of kilometers through the solar system to the asteroid Bennu and back.

Dante Loretta, a planetary scientist at the University of Arizona in Tucson who leads the scientific analysis for OSIRIS-REx, jokes that "it's kind of like a Schrödinger's specimen at this point," alluding to the famous experiment with the cat in the box, which can be both alive and dead until the box is opened.

"We don't know what's in there," the scientist admits.

From the 70 grams of dust and pebbles that were located in the outer part of the container, the scientists learned that some of the samples contained a combination of chemical elements. They did not expect this result.

Analysis of the samples showed that they are rich in volatile chemical elements that have been in a state of space freeze since the birth of the solar system more than 4.5 billion years ago.

"This alone makes the whole mission worthwhile. We now have a large amount of primordial material (from the birth of the solar system)," Loretta said.

Among the loot that has already been removed from the container is a 3.5-centimeter stone, which is the largest of those delivered from Bennu. Like almost all of the asteroid's material, it has a dark, almost black color with a bluish sheen.

Other Bennu samples appear bright against darker pebbles, but only because they have a light reflective coating. However, analysis under a scanning electron microscope revealed that only the fragile top layer is light, while the inside is still dark.

Loretta said that it was this light shell that turned out to contain magnesium, sodium, and phosphate, a combination that rarely, if ever, occurs in meteorites.

"Now it is surprising," the scientist admitted.

Other Bennu debris contains hydrated clay minerals known as phyllosilicates, as well as carbonates, magnetite, and sulfide minerals. According to Loretta, these findings were expected, but they are good to see. Bennu's sample also contains organic compounds - those containing carbon-carbon or carbon-hydrogen bonds - including a large number of ringed molecules known as polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons. Similar organic substances have been found in meteorites on Earth and may have been involved in the origin of life on our planet.

So far, the researchers have cataloged more than 1,000 Bennu particles that are larger than half a millimeter.

According to Loretta, in addition to the 70.3 grams of Bennu that have already been cataloged, there are still 30 to 70 grams of material in the OSIRIS-REx sample return container.

Earlier, OBOZ.UA reported that NASA's new mission to a metallic asteroid could reveal the secret of the Earth's creation.

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