NASA's Osiris-Rex finds water in its first week at asteroid Bennu

The spacecraft is still months away from its planned pick-pocketing maneuver, but it's already learned much about its mark.

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Eric Mack
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A mosaic of 12 images provides a complete picture of Bennu from Osiris-Rex.

NASA/Goddard/University of Arizona

It's been just a week since NASA's Osiris-Rex spacecraft arrived at Bennu, a large asteroid that has a tiny chance of colliding with Earth many decades from now. Already, mission scientists say they've spotted water trapped in the large space rock, which has also surprised them with its rugged and boulder-strewn landscape. 

Spectrometers on Osiris-Rex have detected the presence of water-bearing clay minerals, meaning that Bennu's rocky material came in contact with water at some point, probably when it was part of a larger parent asteroid. The hydrated minerals are widespread over the surface of the asteroid and are similar to minerals found in meteorites that make it to Earth.

"Bennu is going to be able to provide the type of material ... to answer these fundamental questions about whether these carbonaceous asteroids might have delivered these compounds to the surface of the early Earth and led to habitability and maybe even the origin of life," said Dante Lauretta, mission principal investigator.  Lauretta was speaking at a press conference at a meeting of the American Geophysical Union on Monday in Washington, DC.  

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One prominent theory holds that water and other original building blocks of life were delivered to primordial Earth by wet asteroid and comet collisions. 

Lauretta also noted that the presence of water could have other implications for future missions. "Water is the most interesting and possibly lucrative commodity that you could mine" from an asteroid.

The central mission of Osiris-Rex is to use a specialized robotic vacuum arm to suck up a sample of dust and pebbles that'll then be flown back to a planned landing spot in the Utah desert five years from now.   

"When samples of this material are returned by the mission to Earth in 2023, scientists will receive a treasure trove of new information about the history and evolution of our solar system," said Amy Simon, one of the mission's scientists based at NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center, in a news release.

Next, Osiris-Rex will spend several months surveying and mapping the surface of the asteroid in preparation for swiping a sample. So far, the scientists say they've been surprised by the number of large boulders on Bennu, with hundreds about 10 meters (33 feet) in diameter.

"It really looks like a pile of rubble," Lauretta told reporters.  

The floating pile of rubble also has a slight chance of impacting the Earth toward the end of the 22nd century. Part of Osiris-Rex's mission is to better understand the movements of asteroids like Bennu and perhaps learn how to avoid potential future collisions.

So rest easy, earthlings. Robot 'Rex is on the job and working to keep home safe.

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