"Building blocks of life" found in NASA’s Bennu asteroid sample

Early analyses reveal carbon and water in ancient asteroid parachuted down to Earth

Published October 12, 2023 7:02PM (EDT)
Updated October 13, 2023 11:58AM (EDT)
Asteroid approaching planet Earth (Getty Images/dzika_mrowka)
Asteroid approaching planet Earth (Getty Images/dzika_mrowka)

When the OSIRIS-REx mission touched down in Utah with a sample from the 4.5-billion-year-old asteroid, Bennu, scientists who opened the hatch gave an audible gasp when they saw what was inside. Now, early studies from the materials parachuted down to Earth have revealed why: The sample contains evidence of carbon and water, which “together could indicate the building blocks of life on Earth,” according to a NASA press release.

The samples from Bennu could reveal answers to questions about how the solar system formed that scientists have been pursuing for decades. In the two weeks since Bennu’s sample was delivered, scientists have analyzed the crumbled rock and dust surrounding the main canister from the mission to get initial readings about the asteroid’s composition. The main analysis will be performed in the next few weeks when they open the canister. According to Nature, Bennu has already been found to have the highest percentage of carbon ever measured in an extraterrestrial object at 4.7 percent.

“The bounty of carbon-rich material and the abundant presence of water-bearing clay minerals are just the tip of the cosmic iceberg,” said OSIRIS-REx principal investigator Dante Lauretta in the press release. “These discoveries, made possible through years of dedicated collaboration and cutting-edge science, propel us on a journey to understand not only our celestial neighborhood but also the potential for life’s beginnings.”

CORRECTION: The original headline to this story incorrectly suggested that "signs of life" had been detected in the asteroid sample. The headline has been updated, but the article itself is unchanged. 

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