asteroid sample arrives at London’s Natural History Museum

2023-11-29 07:44:55

Is the key to life on Earth contained in a teaspoon of black asteroid dust that arrived in London? Scientists at the Natural History Museum hope to discover the answer.

A bit of dust is going to be exhibited at the Natural History Museum in London. Wait! Before you click away, this isn’t just any old piece of dust.

This dust is an asteroid sample that contains both clues to the origins of life on Earth as well as the potential to end it. Do we have your attention now?

Bennu is a near-Earth asteroid that also orbits the Sun. It’s traveling about 120 million miles away from us, but that hasn’t stopped a NASA space mission from trying to make contact.

After more than seven years of travel, the OSIRIS-REx mission was able to collect a sample from Bennu and return to Earth to land in the state of Utah. Scientists believe the asteroid sample could be an “intact time capsule from the early solar system” and could open the door to understanding the formation of Earth and the origins of life.

101955 Bennu – to give it its full name – is named after the mythological bird of ancient Egypt associated with the sun god Ra, creation and rebirth. The Egyptian Bennu is believed to be an inspiration for the myth of the phoenix.

Bennu is believed to have formed during the initial creation of the Milky Way solar system 4.56 billion years ago. As the Sun formed, a chain reaction of chemical and molecular creation also began, creating disks that orbited the Sun in rings.

In this protoplanetary disk, materials such as water and iron formed into larger masses, eventually coming together to create planets. Scientists believe that Bennu could be an example of one of the first masses preceding the formation of the planets in our solar system.

The excitement over studying a sample of a potential building block of Earth is palpable in comments from Dr Ashley King, a meteorite researcher at the Natural History Museum of Great Britain. “It’s kind of like the remaining building block of our solar system,” King says.

“When we think about the formation of planet Earth, all the ingredients are also locked up in Bennu. So we want to unravel the story of Bennu and learn more about the origin of the solar system and then the history of the Earth,” King continues.

Usually, scientists can only study meteorites – asteroids that fall to Earth – that are irreversibly changed by their contact with Earth’s atmosphere. The ability to study a sampled asteroid in space means that conditions are more perfect for drawing better conclusions.

“We think the sample comes from the type of asteroid that we think could be responsible for bringing water to Earth,” explains Dr Helena Bates, a researcher at the Natural History Museum. Bates continues: “When the Earth formed, the environment was quite dry and we believe that water was supplied by an extraterrestrial source at some point during Earth’s later evolution. We think Bennu could be representative of the type of asteroid that brought water to Earth. »

But it’s not just water they’re looking for. The hunt is on for organic compounds – carbon molecules – that could indicate the beginning of life on Earth itself.

If Bennu gives with one hand, with the other he takes away, because the asteroid is also considered one of the most dangerous in the entire solar system.

Bennu is on an orbital pattern around the Sun that is quite similar to that of Earth. This means that there will be many times in the future when scientists have predicted that it could eventually come into contact with our planet.

The current best estimates of a potential impact point to a direct impact between the years 2175 and 2300 with a probability of 0.037%.

So it’s not exactly an extremely likely event. But if that happened, the consequences would be devastating. The collision would create more than 1,200 megatons of TNT equivalent, more than 20 times the power of the Tsar Bomba, the most powerful nuclear weapon ever tested.

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