UK scientists study asteroid dust that could hold secret to origins of life on Earth

The Bennu asteroid. Credit: AP

British scientists have been given a teaspoon-sized sample of dust from the Bennu asteroid that could reveal the secrets to the origin of life on Earth.

A team at the Natural History Museum is carrying out research on the black, rocky powder.

NASA’s Osiris-Rex spacecraft collected the samples three years ago from the surface of Bennu and then dropped them off sealed in a capsule that landed in Utah during a flyby of Earth last month.

The asteroid is 60 million miles from Earth and is an untouched time capsule. It is believed to have coalesced from material that formed during the birth of the solar system 4.56 billion years ago.

Dr Ashley King from the Natural History Museum said: "It's kind of like the leftover building block of our solar system."

The sample at the museum. Credit: Natural History Musuem

Since the capsule returned to Earth, NASA has been extracting the samples in a highly controlled environment and has started sending them to researchers across the world.

The asteroid is made up of carbon and other minerals, with scientists eager to find out if it contains water.

Scientists believe asteroids like Bennu brought water to Earth when they hit the surface more than 4 billion years ago.

This in turn led to Earth being able to sustain life, something completely unique in all of the known universe.

Dr Helena Bates, a researcher at the Natural History Museum said: "When Earth formed it was quite a dry environment, and we think that water was delivered from an extraterrestrial source at some point during Earth's later evolution.

Researchers are now studying the sample. Credit: Natural History Musuem

"We think that Bennu could be representative of the type of asteroid that delivered water to Earth."

She also said: "We're going to be looking at the organic content.

"When I say organics, I don't mean life, but carbon-bearing molecules.

"We're obviously made up of organic molecules built into life.

"But we find organic material in some meteorite samples that are similar to Bennu.

"So we're going to be looking at the organic complement of this sample, trying to see if maybe these samples from Bennu - or samples like the samples from Bennu - could have acted like a stock cube for life and were delivered to Earth."

The question of whether water was brought to Earth by asteroids was one of the primary reasons for the £800 million seven-year mission.

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