NASA proposes mission to snatch a piece from ‘time capsule’ asteroid

March 12th, 2010 - 2:08 pm ICT by ANI  

Washington, March 12 (ANI): NASA has proposed a space mission that would return samples from asteroid 1999 RQ36, which is literally a ‘time capsule’ from before the birth of our solar system that could shed light on how life began.

“This asteroid is a time capsule from before the birth of our solar system,” said Bill Cutlip of NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Maryland, one of the leaders of Goddard’s effort to propose a mission called OSIRIS-REx that will return a sample from RQ36.

If selected, Goddard will provide overall mission management for OSIRIS-REx, working with the Principal Investigator, Dr. Michael Drake, Director of the Lunar and Planetary Laboratory at the University of Arizona, who will lead the OSIRIS-REx team.

“You can’t underestimate the value of a pristine sample,” Cutlip said.

Meteorites, pieces of asteroids that break away and plunge to Earth, are “toasted on their way through Earth’s atmosphere,” Cutlip explained.

“Once they land, they then soak up the microbes and chemicals from the environment around them,” he said.

“With a pristine sample - especially one from an asteroid type not available in NASA’s meteorite collections - scientists will learn more about the time before the birth of our solar system, the initial stages of planet formation, and the source of organic compounds available for the origin of life,” said Dr. Joseph Nuth of NASA Goddard, OSIRIS-REx Project Scientist.

Asteroids are leftovers from the cloud of gas and dust - the solar nebula - that collapsed to form our sun and the planets about 4.5 billion years ago.

As such, they contain the original material from the solar nebula, which can tell us about the conditions of our solar system’s birth.

In some asteroids, this material got altered by heat and chemical reactions, either because they collided with other asteroids, or because they grew so large that their interiors became molten.

That’s what makes RQ36 special.

It’s small and appears to have been altered very little, preserving the snapshot of our solar system’s infancy.

It’s also rich in carbon, an element used in many of the organic molecules necessary for life.

Organic molecules have been found in meteorite and comet samples, indicating that some of life’s ingredients can be created in space.

Scientists want to see if they are also present in RQ36.

“We’ll orbit RQ36 for about a year to analyze its surface and select a sample site. This will give us experience with operating spacecraft in the vicinity of an asteroid, experience that will be useful if we ever have to send a mission to deflect one,” said Nuth. (ANI)

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