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Nasa opens up pieces of a distant asteroid transported back to Earth

Nasa has revealed chunks of a distant asteroid that were transported back down to Earth.

The dark, dusty sample comes from a 4.5-billion-year-old asteroid, and might include the “building blocks of life”, the space agency said.

Already, the material from the asteroid Bennu has been found to include high-carbon content and water, the space agency said. But it will be distributed around the world with a view to finding out everything from the history of our solar system to how life came about.

Scientists and space agency leaders showed photos and video of the asteroid material – returned to Earth last month – at a live streamed event at the Johnson Space Centre in Houston, Texas.

The display came after a capsule containing an estimated 250g of rocks and dust collected from asteroid Bennu, touched down in the Utah desert near Salt Lake City on September 24.

Nasa has said it was “the biggest, carbon-rich asteroid sample ever delivered to Earth”, and its contents have now been hailed as “scientific treasure”.

Nasa administrator Bill Nelson said the sample will “help scientists investigate the origins of life on our own planet for generations to come”.

He added: “Almost everything we do at Nasa seeks to answer questions about who we are and where we come from.

“Nasa missions like Osiris-Rex will improve our understanding of asteroids that could threaten Earth while giving us a glimpse into what lies beyond.

“The sample has made it back to Earth, but there is still so much science to come – science like we’ve never seen before.”

Almost 60 million miles away, asteroid Bennu is a 4.5-billion-year-old remnant of our early solar system and scientists believe it can help shed light on how planets formed and evolved.

The spacecraft launched on September 8 2016 and arrived at Bennu in December 2018.

It dropped the samples off sealed in a capsule last month.

“Already this is scientific treasure,” said the mission’s lead scientist, Professor Dante Lauretta, of the University of Arizona on Wednesday.

In a statement, he added: “As we peer into the ancient secrets preserved within the dust and rocks of asteroid Bennu, we are unlocking a time capsule that offers us profound insights into the origins of our solar system.

“The bounty of carbon-rich material and the abundant presence of water-bearing clay minerals are just the tip of the cosmic iceberg.

“These discoveries, made possible through years of dedicated collaboration and cutting-edge science, propel us on a journey to understand not only our celestial neighbourhood but also the potential for life’s beginnings.

“With each revelation from Bennu, we draw closer to unravelling the mysteries of our cosmic heritage.”

Nasa‘s mission goal was to collect was 60 grams of asteroid sample.

But when the canister lid was opened, Nasa said scientists discovered “bonus material” covering the outside of the collector head, canister lid, and base.

There was so much extra material it slowed down the process of collecting and containing the primary sample, Nasa said.

Scientists are not sure exactly how much of Bennu they brought back because the main sample chamber has not yet been opened.

Mr Lauretta said: “It’s been going slow and meticulous, but the science is already starting.”

He said there is “a whole treasure chest of extraterrestrial material” still to be examined.

During Wednesday’s press conference, Osiris-Rex sample analyst Daniel Glavin added: “This stuff is an astrobiologist’s dream, I just can’t wait to get at it.

“We’re going to learn so much about the origin of the solar system, the evolution and potentially how even life started here on Earth.”

Additional reporting by agencies

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