June 5, 2017

UA to Get Early Sample of Asteroid for Study

The material should give a glimpse into the history of Bennu, and of the universe.

Transmission Electron Microscope Planetary scientist Tom Zega with the UA Lunar and Planetary Laboratory's transmission electronic microscope which will analyze dirt samples returned from the asteroid Bennu in 2023. The instrument has serial number 1. (PHOTO: Sara Hammond, AZPM)

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A University of Arizona scientist will be one of the first to analyze asteroid samples brought to Earth as part of a university-led space mission.

The OSIRIS-REx spacecraft is on its way to an asteroid called Bennu. It will grab a sample of the pristine space rock in 2020, and the dirt will be back on Earth in 2023.

After landing in Utah, the sample will first go to Johnson Space Center in Houston for distribution to scientists worldwide for study. UA planetary scientist Tom Zega is getting his laboratories ready for years of analysis.

“Bennu, we think, is a carbon-rich asteroid, so we expect that it should be chock-full of organic compounds. So among the things that we will look for is, ‘What is the chemical makeup of these organic compounds? What do their molecular structures look like? What is their isotopic composition?” Zega said.

They’re looking for the composition of the asteroid, and clues to the origins of the universe.

Zega says he expects the amount of material he will receive will fit on the head of a pin. But he says that’s more than enough for his labs’ powerful instruments to peer into the history of the asteroid.

OSIRIS-REx's next milestone is in September, when the spacecraft will get a nudge from Earth's gravity to send it toward Bennu.

Arizona Science Desk
This story is from the Arizona Science Desk, a collaborative of the state's public radio stations, including NPR 89.1. Read more from the Arizona Science Desk.
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