The Secrets of Bennu: OSIRIS-REx's Monumental Asteroid Sample Return - Josh Habka

The Secrets of Bennu: OSIRIS-REx's Monumental Asteroid Sample Return - Josh Habka

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The OSIRIS-REx mission, NASA's first-ever asteroid sample-return endeavor, has just delivered a treasure trove of information, shedding light on the secrets of asteroid Bennu. After a historic journey spanning billions of miles, OSIRIS-REx successfully returned with a significant sample from the 1,650-foot-wide Bennu. This blog post explores the remarkable findings from this mission, highlighting the potential implications for understanding the origins of life and the formation of our solar system.

Unveiling Bennu's Mysteries

Bennu Asteroid
Mosaic image of Bennu after two years of observation by OSIRIS-REx

A Carbon-Rich Bounty: The preliminary analysis of the returned sample has revealed exciting insights. Bennu, a 4.5-billion-year-old asteroid, is rich in carbon-containing compounds. This makes the OSIRIS-REx sample the largest carbon-rich asteroid sample ever brought to Earth.

Carbon is a fundamental element of life as we know it. It's the backbone of organic molecules and the key to understanding the potential for life elsewhere in the universe. Finding significant amounts of carbon on Bennu is a crucial discovery.

Water's Cosmic Connection: In addition to carbon, the sample contains water-bearing clay minerals. This combination of high carbon content and water opens a window into the building blocks of life on Earth. Many scientists believe that carbon-rich asteroids like Bennu may have played a vital role in seeding life on our planet through impacts.

Water is another essential component for life as we know it. The presence of water-bearing clay minerals on Bennu indicates that not only are there the basic organic building blocks for life, but also the solvent required for chemical reactions to take place.

Decoding Our Cosmic Heritage: Bennu is a relic of our solar system's early planet-forming days. Studying this asteroid provides critical insights into the formation and evolution of our cosmic neighborhood. It's a snapshot of what the early solar system was like, and by analyzing its composition, scientists can learn more about how the planets, including Earth, formed.

The discoveries made on Bennu through OSIRIS-REx's sample return will contribute significantly to our understanding of the solar system's history. It's like a time capsule that holds clues about the conditions and materials present during the formation of our solar system.

Mission Recap

OSIRIS-REx's Epic Journey: The mission launched in September 2016 and arrived at Bennu in December 2018. It spent 22 months studying the asteroid from orbit, searching for the perfect spot to collect a sample.

Dramatic Sampling: The sampling run in October 2020 was a nail-biter. Bennu's surface was unexpectedly porous, causing OSIRIS-REx to sink deeply into the asteroid. Despite this challenge, the probe managed to secure a substantial sample, although some material escaped into space due to clogging issues.

The sampling process was fraught with uncertainty, and there were moments of concern. OSIRIS-REx's team had to make quick decisions to ensure the success of the mission. Their efforts paid off, as they managed to collect a substantial sample that's now providing vital insights into our cosmic history.

Safe Return: OSIRIS-REx's return capsule landed in the Utah desert on September 24, 2023, concluding its remarkable journey. The safe return of the capsule was the culmination of years of planning and execution, involving precision navigation and engineering to ensure the precious sample made it back to Earth intact.

The Future of OSIRIS-REx

Future Mission
NASA's OSIRIS-REx mission, after returning samples collected from the asteroid Bennu, will get a second life as OSIRIS-APEX to visit the asteroid Apophis in 2029 (image credit: NASA/GSFC/Univ. of Arizona)

Continuing the Exploration: While the return capsule is safely on Earth, the OSIRIS-REx spacecraft still has a mission ahead. It's on its way to another asteroid named Apophis, where it will arrive in 2029 for an extended mission called OSIRIS-APEX.

This extended mission showcases NASA's commitment to exploring and learning from our cosmic neighbors. Apophis is a Near-Earth Object (NEO) and studying it up close will provide invaluable data on these potentially hazardous asteroids.

What's Next?

Sample Analysis
A view of the outside of the OSIRIS-REx sample collector, with 'bonus' material on the right - NASA/Erika Blumenfeld & Joseph Aebersold

Studying the Sample: Scientists at NASA's Johnson Space Center are busy processing, curating, and storing the Bennu sample. Over the coming months and years, parts of the sample will be distributed to researchers worldwide for in-depth study.

Unraveling Cosmic Mysteries: Researchers will work to identify the carbon compounds in the sample, providing valuable insights into the origins of life on Earth. This is a complex process that involves various techniques, including spectroscopy and chemical analyses.

A Time Capsule of Cosmic History: As we peer into the ancient secrets held within the dust and rocks of Bennu, we unlock a time capsule that offers profound insights into the origins of our solar system and the potential beginnings of life itself.

The analysis of the sample is just beginning. The preliminary findings have opened the door to a multitude of questions that scientists aim to answer through extensive research and analysis.

Bonus Sample Material

The “coal-like” material from Bennu. Nasa / Erika Blumenfeld & Joseph Aebers

Unexpected Surprises: When scientists opened the sample canister, they found bonus asteroid material on the outside of the collector head, canister lid, and base. This serendipitous discovery underscores the mission's importance and scientific value.

This bonus material offers an unexpected opportunity for comparison. It's a chance to investigate the differences between the material collected on Bennu's surface and that which was exposed to the harshness of space during the return journey.

Preserving the Cosmic Gift

Ensuring Future Generations Benefit: NASA is preserving at least 70% of the sample at Johnson Space Center for further research by scientists worldwide. This valuable resource will provide insights for years to come.

This commitment to preserving the sample for future generations of scientists is a testament to the mission's long-term scientific value. It's not just a one-time event but a resource that will keep on giving.


The OSIRIS-REx mission has not only succeeded in safely bringing a sample from asteroid Bennu back to Earth but has also given us a glimpse into the cosmic past and the potential origins of life. This historic achievement marks a giant leap in our understanding of the universe and its role in shaping our home planet.

As scientists delve deeper into the secrets held within the Bennu sample, we are bound to unravel more mysteries about our cosmic heritage. This sample is a precious gift from the cosmos, a time capsule that holds the secrets of our solar system's formation and the building blocks of life as we know it.

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