Transcripts of “Studying an Asteroid on Earth”


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My name is Jason Dworkin. I'm the director of the Astrobiology Analytical Laboratory at NASA Goddard. I'm also the Project Scientist for OSIRIS-REx.

Text on screen: What do you study in the Astrobiology Lab?

Dworkin: We're interested in studying the origin and evolution of life on the Earth and other bodies in the solar system, from the perspective of understanding simple organic chemistry. We don't understand what happened in the ancient Earth. Most of that record is lost by subduction and other geochemical processes. However, meteorites and the asteroid Bennu witnessed the chemistry of the early solar system. A problem with studying meteorites is that they invariably land on the ground: they land in ice in Antarctica, for example, or in dirt or soil, and life very rapidly contaminates these samples. By going to collect the samples from an asteroid we can keep the samples pristine, by having very tight controls over what the spacecraft is made out of and how it's returned, and archived and distributed around the world.

Text on screen: What is OSIRIS-REx?

Dworkin: OSIRIS-REx is a NASA mission which launches in 2016 and goes to the near-Earth asteroid Bennu (which is a organic-rich, very dark, primitive asteroid), orbits the asteroid for about a year, studies it in great detail, and then collects a sample and returns it to the Earth for worldwide distribution and study. Samples from Bennu will be returned to Earth in 2023. They land at the UTTR facility in Utah, then are transported to the Johnson Space Center in Houston.

Text on screen: Who will study the Bennu samples?

Dworkin: Any scientist in the world can write a proposal to request some sample and justify what they'll get from it. The Bennu samples will contain riches which can be studied today and are in many ways beyond technology right now to study. For example, in this laboratory we've been studying samples brought back by the Apollo missions. The analysis is being performed by a woman who was not born yet when the samples were returned, using instrumentation that was not designed, asking questions not thought possible. This is the value of sample return: it's a gift to the Earth that keeps giving generation after generation as technologies advance and as new people come up with new questions that we're not smart enough now to think about.

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