Life After Asteroid Bennu

Last fall, a NASA spacecraft named OSIRIS-REx dropped a capsule containing more than 120 grams of space dust into the Utah desert. That material came from Bennu, an asteroid that, a billion years ago, broke off from a bigger world that may have hosted liquid water. Studying this material will clarify the role that asteroids might have played in bringing life’s ingredients to Earth.

For Dante Lauretta, a planetary scientist at the University of Arizona and the mission leader, retrieving the sample spelled the end of an era. Since the mission began in 2016, Dr. Lauretta has been immersed in all things OSIRIS-REx. Frames on the wall of his office showcase covers of the journals Nature and Science that featured the journey to Bennu and back. Next to them is an oversize cover of his new book, “The Asteroid Hunter: A Scientist’s Journey to the Dawn of Our Solar System.” Part mission report, part memoir, the book tells the story of how two ancient carbon atoms — one on Bennu, one entangled in the genetic code of Dr. Lauretta — find each other again.

After dropping off the sample, the OSIRIS-REx spacecraft continued its voyage through the solar system, and Dr. Lauretta handed off the keys. He recently spoke to The New York Times about life after OSIRIS-REx and how the mission’s impact carries on. The following conversation has been edited for brevity and clarity.

What have you been up to since OSIRIS-REx’s final act?

The weeks after Earth return were all Houston, all day long. The disassembly of the asteroid sample collector was going slower than we expected, but it was fun and historic. I got to go in the clean room and be there for those moments when we first laid eyes on the sample. By early November, I had some of the sample in my lab in Arizona.

Students in my astrobiology class got lectures live from Johnson Space Center in Houston. I took them around with my phone, and the sample processors came over and danced around in their bunny suits. It was amazing.

Why was disassembly taking so long?

There were a couple of screws that were stuck, and we didn’t have tools that would keep the sample pristine. Hard tools have carbon steel in them, and we didn’t want those tools in the clean room because of contamination — carbon is of interest for astrobiology and origins of life and all the fun science that we’re doing. So the tools we use are soft. And you could see the screwdriver’s head starting to distort while trying to remove the fasteners.

Back to top button