OSIRIS REx Asteroid Sample Return lid opening at Building 31 Astromaterials Curation Facility. Photo date: Sept. 26, 2023. Location: Bldg. 31 - OSIRIS REx Thin Section Lab.
The Smithsonian’s National Museum of Natural History will unveil the first public display of a sample of Bennu—a carbon-rich, near-Earth asteroid—to museumgoers Friday, Nov. 3. The rocky fragment was collected from the asteroid by NASA’s OSIRIS-REx mission, the first U.S. space mission to sample the surface of a planetary body since Apollo 17 in 1972. Samples from Bennu may provide insights into how water and organic molecules first reached Earth, a core research focus of the OSIRIS-REx mission and of the museum’s new Our Unique Planet initiative.
“The OSIRIS-REx mission is an incredible scientific achievement that promises to shed light on what makes our planet unique,” said Kirk Johnson, the Sant Director of the National Museum of Natural History. “With the help of our partners at NASA, we are proud to put one of these momentous samples on display to the public for the first time.”
Bennu is slightly wider than the Empire State Building is tall, shaped like a spinning top and it orbits the sun at distance between the orbits of Earth and Mars. The dark rocks and dust from Bennu were collected by NASA’s OSIRIS-Rex (Origins, Spectral Interpretation, Resource Identification and Security-Regolith Explorer) spacecraft in 2020, following two years spent mapping the asteroid’s rocky exterior.
Bennu was an intriguing target for the OSIRIS-REx mission due in part to its proximity to Earth’s orbit and its chemical composition. Bennu’s rocks are thought to date to the formation of the solar system more than 4.5 billion years ago. Early telescope observations of Bennu suggested that, unlike most asteroids, it is carbon-rich and likely contains organic molecules similar to those that sparked life on an embryonic Earth.
OSIRIS-REx collected rock and dust specimens from Bennu’s rugged exterior with a new type of sampling device that used compressed gas to loosen particles on the asteroid’s surface. In 2021, the spacecraft then began its long journey to another asteroid, but not before it passed Earth to drop off its sample cannister. As it soared by Earth this past September, OSIRIS-REx dropped the capsule containing the Bennu samples. The capsule entered Earth’s atmosphere off the coast of California, and when it landed on the desert floor in Utah, scientists promptly collected it to prevent contamination as much as possible.
“Having now returned to Earth without being exposed to our water-rich atmosphere or the life that fills every corner of our planet, the samples of Bennu hold the promise to tell us about the water and organics before life came to form our unique planet,” said Tim McCoy, the museum’s curator of meteorites who has worked on the OSIRIS-REx mission for nearly two decades as part of an international team of scientists.
NASA scientists have already found evidence of essential elements like carbon in the tiny rocks exposed outside the main sample container, which holds a trove of larger fragments. These early samples, which are smaller than a grain of rice, also contain water-rich minerals. Researchers speculate that similar water-containing asteroids bombarded Earth billions of years ago, providing the water that eventually formed the planet’s first oceans.
“The knowledge we gain from the study of the asteroid Bennu sample will influence our scientific understanding of the solar system for generations to come,” said NASA Administrator Bill Nelson. “And in sharing this 4.5 billion-year-old sample with the public, we hope to inspire the Artemis generation and future generations to ask even bigger questions and make greater scientific discoveries.”
The arrival of the Bennu asteroid samples—another specimen is already being studied behind the scenes—marks a major milestone in the museum’s new initiative, Our Unique Planet. As a public–private research partnership, Our Unique Planet investigates what sets Earth apart from its cosmic neighbors by exploring the origins of the planet’s oceans and continents as well as how minerals may have served as templates for life.
The Smithsonian will be the first institution to display a Bennu sample to the public; it will be exhibited in the museum’s Janet Annenberg Hooker Hall of Geology, Gems, and Minerals meteorite gallery. In addition to the Bennu sample, museum visitors will also see scale models of the OSIRIS-Rex spacecraft, on loan from Lockheed Martin, and the Atlas V 411 rocket that carried the spacecraft, on loan courtesy of United Launch Alliance. The display will also include a video highlighting interviews, animations and images from the mission. Other samples will later go on display at the Alfie Norville Gem & Mineral Museum at the University of Arizona in Tucson and Space Center Houston, adjacent to NASA’s Johnson Space Center, where most of the Bennu samples reside.
“This exhibit is our first chance to share this incredible journey with the public,” McCoy said. He hopes the display will help inspire the next generation of scientists to explore the earliest eons of Earth’s history. “Learning the secrets of these samples is just beginning and will continue in the future with techniques that have yet to be invented to answer questions we haven’t yet asked.”
Members of the news media interested in attending the public unveiling Nov. 3 are asked to contact the museum’s press office using the contact information included in the header of this press release.
About the National Museum of Natural History
The National Museum of Natural History is connecting people everywhere with Earth’s unfolding story. It is one of the most visited natural history museums in the world. Opened in 1910, the museum is dedicated to maintaining and preserving the world’s most extensive collection of natural history specimens and human artifacts. The museum is open daily, except Dec. 25, from 10 a.m. to 5:30 p.m. Admission is free. For more information, visit the museum on its website, blog, Facebook, Twitter and Instagram.
# # #