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NASA’s OSIRIS-REx brings back research from an asteroid

OSIRIS-REx is flying home with dozens of research projects.
This image, taken by NASA's Near Earth Asteroid Rendezvous mission in 2000, shows a close-up...
This image, taken by NASA's Near Earth Asteroid Rendezvous mission in 2000, shows a close-up view of Eros, an asteroid with an orbit that takes it somewhat close to Earth. (Source: NASA/JHUAPL)
Published: Jul. 16, 2021 at 9:07 PM EDT
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KNOXVILLE, Tenn. (WVLT) - One of NASA’s most audacious missions sounds like it’s from the movie ‘Armageddon.’ A spacecraft heading back to Earth after landing – and then digging – on an asteroid. Scientists are not just looking for the secrets of the next ‘near miss,’ they’re also looking for signs of life.

“Planetary defense is an aspect that we will learn from this mission,” NASA’s Dr. Jason Dworkin said.

OSIRIS-REx is flying home with dozens of research projects.

“We can perhaps better predict the impact threats of this and other asteroids in the future,” Dworkin said

Dr. Jason Dworkin says other rocket scientists want to better understand how space rocks move and what they’re made of.

“Looking for rare precious things on Earth to bring them back,” Dworkin said.

Much like how gold prospectors pan dirt in a stream, NASA thinks the asteroid Bennu could be the tester for a new resource rush. While this is a ‘carbon-based’ asteroid, others could be full of precious metal or even ice.

“If you need something that is cheap on Earth but expensive in space, like water, would be an excellent thing to mine on an asteroid,” Dworkin said.

There are millions of asteroids in the solar system, only one or two met the requirements for OSIRIS-REx, including hunting for valuable material like ice or metals.

“Of those, Bennu was the best candidate,” Dworkin said.

Dr. Dworkin says that if the mining opportunities or fending off the next huge asteroid aren’t enough to entice you, how about the building blocks of life?

“Biology on Earth uses almost exclusively left-handed amino acids and right-handed sugars,” Dworkin said

He says – in space – it’s often the opposite! The amino acids are on the right hand, while sugars are on the other. The actual building blocks for life, often reversed in space!

“But there are a few meteorites that show an excess of the handedness in biology” Dworkin said.

Anytime a meteorite lands on Earth, Dr. Dworkin said it’s already contaminated. Now our first ever chance to study a sealed piece of space rock… never touched.

“Could that be present in other biology that we might somehow discover outside of Earth in the Solar System?”

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