To Find the 'Building Blocks of Life,' NASA Launches Asteroid Bennu Mission

Tuesday, 13 March 2018 - 10:30AM
Tuesday, 13 March 2018 - 10:30AM
To Find the 'Building Blocks of Life,' NASA Launches Asteroid Bennu Mission
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Image credit: YouTube
Increasingly, scientists are becoming convinced that life on Earth must have started in space.

The prevailing theory, which is gaining traction among some scholars and experts, is that in order for Earth to begin producing living creatures, we first needed a little nudge from an extraterrestrial source. It's possible that the initial material that caused life to spark on Earth was provided by an asteroid, which either contained materials that were cooked in cosmic rays, or otherwise provided the so-called "building blocks of life" that found a fertile home on our planet as simple life forms began to develop.

NASA is currently engaged in an ongoing project, named OsirisREx, which will visit an asteroid called Bennu (itself named after an Egyptian heron) that will soon come close to our planet. We've already seen some fantastic results from this mission, as the OsirisREx has provided a clear picture of the Earth and the moon in their relative positions in the sky.

There may be more going on within Bennu than we've been able to previously confirm—if we're very lucky, Bennu itself might contain some of the same mix of ingredients that first started life on Earth.

As intriguing as the asteroid "building blocks" theory of life on Earth might be, we don't yet have enough solid evidence that this is the case. Finding these materials within samples from Bennu could potentially give us the first clue we need as to what happened to create living organisms on our own planet.

According to Edward Beshore, deputy principal investigator at the University of Arizona:

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"By bringing this material back to Earth, we can do a far more thorough analysis than we can with instruments on a spacecraft, because of practical limits on the size, mass, and energy consumption of what can be flown. We will also set aside returned materials for future generations to study with instruments and capabilities we can't even imagine now."
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Even if the samples from Bennu don't teach us much about the origin of life on Earth, there's a lot that we can learn about the rockier side to the history of this planet.

In theory, Bennu could well contain matter that remains in the same form as it was in when the asteroid was first formed, in which case, we'll be able to take a glimpse at the history of planets in our solar system, and learn more about the process through which new planets are born.

Either way, there's a lot here to learn, and assuming that the ongoing OsirisREx mission goes according to plan, within the next few years our understanding of the solar system will grow significantly.

If we're very lucky, we might just learn the secrets of creating life, making this entire return trip more very worthwhile indeed!

In the meantime, if we're not able to get all the data that we want from the current mission, there's no need to fret: in about two hundred years, Bennu will get even closer to Earth.

Of course, there's a chance the asteroid could smash down onto the planet, but surely that'll just make it easier to study, right?