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Life After Asteroid Bennu

Final fall, a NASA spacecraft named OSIRIS-REx dropped a capsule containing greater than 120 grams of house mud into the Utah desert. That materials got here from Bennu, an asteroid that, a billion years in the past, broke off from a much bigger world that will have hosted liquid water. Finding out this materials will make clear the function that asteroids might need performed in bringing life’s substances to Earth.

For Dante Lauretta, a planetary scientist on the College of Arizona and the mission chief, retrieving the pattern spelled the tip of an period. For the reason that mission started in 2016, Dr. Lauretta has been immersed in all issues OSIRIS-REx. Frames on the wall of his workplace showcase covers of the journals Nature and Science that featured the journey to Bennu and again. Subsequent to them is an oversize cowl of his new ebook, “The Asteroid Hunter: A Scientist’s Journey to the Dawn of Our Solar System.” Half mission report, half memoir, the ebook tells the story of how two historic carbon atoms — one on Bennu, one entangled within the genetic code of Dr. Lauretta — discover one another once more.

After dropping off the pattern, the OSIRIS-REx spacecraft continued its voyage through the solar system, and Dr. Lauretta handed off the keys. He lately spoke to The New York Occasions about life after OSIRIS-REx and the way the mission’s influence carries on. The next dialog has been edited for brevity and readability.

What have you ever been as much as since OSIRIS-REx’s closing act?

The weeks after Earth return have been all Houston, all day lengthy. The disassembly of the asteroid pattern collector was going slower than we anticipated, nevertheless it was enjoyable and historic. I acquired to go within the clear room and be there for these moments after we first laid eyes on the pattern. By early November, I had a number of the pattern in my lab in Arizona.

College students in my astrobiology class acquired lectures reside from Johnson Area Middle in Houston. I took them round with my cellphone, and the pattern processors came to visit and danced round of their bunny fits. It was superb.

Why was disassembly taking so lengthy?

There have been a few screws that have been caught, and we didn’t have instruments that might hold the pattern pristine. Arduous instruments have carbon metal in them, and we didn’t need these instruments within the clear room due to contamination — carbon is of curiosity for astrobiology and origins of life and all of the enjoyable science that we’re doing. So the instruments we use are delicate. And you would see the screwdriver’s head beginning to distort whereas attempting to take away the fasteners.

Ultimately, we simply determined to undergo a flap on the top of the pattern collector, and pulled out round 70 grams of stuff. That was already greater than we promised NASA we’d convey again. Then we took a while to construct a screwdriver we may use, and eventually cracked the factor open in January.

Any surprises with the pattern to date?

In 2020, we wrote a paper about massive white veins — like a meter lengthy, 10 centimeters thick — on the rocks and boulders of Bennu. We thought these have been carbonates that fashioned in water, which is thrilling. Carbon-bearing minerals are present in organic methods.

After we acquired the rocks again, a few of them had this white, crusty materials throughout them. I used to be so excited as a result of I assumed we had gotten the carbonates. However once I acquired some grains within the lab, it was phosphate, a compound that incorporates the factor phosphorus. And it was wealthy in sodium.

We had a pupil take a look at one grain beneath an electron microscope, and it was cracked and desiccated. It regarded like a mud flat after the water evaporates, when it will get all fractured and shrinks up.

So did we get it mistaken on the asteroid? I don’t know. Had been these veins truly phosphates? We’re nonetheless chasing that down.

What would it not imply for these veins to be product of phosphorus somewhat than carbon?

Phosphorus has a particular place in my coronary heart, due to the astrobiology work I did as a graduate pupil. It’s one of many “massive six” components of life, together with hydrogen, carbon, nitrogen, oxygen and sulfur. Because the least plentiful, phosphorus offers necessary clues into how the factor acquired concerned in biology.

I learn a paper about sodium-rich phosphates popping out of the plumes of Enceladus, certainly one of Saturn’s moons. After which a study got here out about soda lakes in Canada, that are essentially the most phosphate-rich lakes on Earth that we all know. And it had precisely the identical chemistry.

I don’t know if Bennu is an actual analog, however this sort of fluid chemistry is necessary. This might be proof of liquid water evaporating away with excessive concentrations of phosphorus, a key ingredient for the origin of life. And different teams are discovering comparable chemistry in biologically necessary environments, one round Saturn and one on Earth. It is a dream come true.

How did your ebook come about?

I got here up with the concept of writing a extra private model of OSIRIS-REx in 2018, earlier than the mission had even gotten to Bennu. We collected the pattern in 2020 and had two and a half years to cruise earlier than it landed on Earth, so I spent these years writing.

The ebook ends with the pattern return in Utah, so the 2 epilogues weren’t written till the week after. On the flight from Utah to Houston, I put some earbuds in and simply narrated every thing that had occurred over the previous 24 hours. After which I wrote the finale of the 2 carbon atoms, the common thread that underlies the story, later in my resort room.

Your ebook is about OSIRIS-REx, nevertheless it’s additionally about you. How did your childhood put together you to discover the photo voltaic system?

I grew up in Arizona, and by the point I used to be 12, it was simply my mother elevating three of us. I used to be a lot older than my two brothers. We didn’t have a TV. There was nothing however the desert for leisure. So I spent a number of time exploring it, discovering every kind of wonderful little secrets and techniques.

I’d come throughout Native American buildings and petroglyph partitions, and actually felt a connection in time to those that had come earlier than me. And I began fascinated about, properly, who got here earlier than them? And the way far again can you are taking that query? I keep in mind the primary time I discovered a trilobite — that was superb. I puzzled why it wasn’t round anymore. What occurred to it? Might that occur to us?

That is once I began to understand geology. There are tales within the rocks. Since then, I’ve all the time been an explorer. Once I acquired older, I’d go backpacking, tenting, on hikes and so forth. I simply beloved going someplace, and I needed to go the place nobody had gone earlier than.

Once I did an expedition in Antarctica, I felt like that was it, I’d by no means get extra distant than that. Then OSIRIS-REx got here alongside, and that was simply one other degree — the ultimate frontier.

What’s subsequent for you?

I’m the primary director of the brand new Arizona Astrobiology Center. And it’s banging! It’s actually a group heart, as a result of individuals are coming to us. Undergraduate college students are flocking. Academics and directors from Ok-12 faculties wish to know the way they will get engaged.

I like getting to hang around with college students, which I gave up doing a number of throughout OSIRIS-REx. It’s very accessible for them to become involved. We will practice college students and have them on an electron microscope, materials from Bennu, in days. Being on this new atmosphere with the coed and group focus is great.

I feel that is the fruits of what folks can do after we unite with a typical imaginative and prescient. OSIRIS-REx is a lot larger than me. Individuals inform me how inspiring what we did was, and the way proud they’re of me, this group and this nation. I really feel like I’ve been a part of one thing unbelievable, superb and highly effective.

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