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NASA unveils rocks brought back from an asteroid

MARY LOUISE KELLY, HOST:

Rocks that are older than the Earth. Photos of them were unveiled today by NASA as the space agency showed off pebbles and dust that it collected from an asteroid more than 200 million miles away. The asteroid material was transported to Earth by a space capsule that landed in Utah late last month. NPR's Nell Greenfieldboyce reports that thrilled scientists are slowly sorting through what was inside.

NELL GREENFIELDBOYCE, BYLINE: A big crowd gathered at NASA's Johnson Space Center in Houston to finally see the rocks brought home from an asteroid named Bennu by the seven-year-long OSIRIS-REx mission. There were school children, reporters, representatives of elected officials, more than 20 minutes of speeches. Then NASA Administrator Bill Nelson asked...

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BILL NELSON: You ready to see the results of the mission?

(APPLAUSE)

NELSON: Take a peek.

GREENFIELDBOYCE: A screen showed an image of the part of the spacecraft that actually touched Bennu, a sample collection device that looks like a round metal air filter. Sitting on top was a small pile of black dust and tiny rocks. They looked shiny, sort of like bits of fresh asphalt.

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DANTE LAURETTA: Trust me, I spent the weekend staring at this image for hours and hours and getting more excited by the day.

GREENFIELDBOYCE: Dante Lauretta is the lead scientist for this mission. He's with the University of Arizona. He excitedly pointed to differences between the little rocks.

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LAURETTA: Bennu has a salt and pepper kind of texture, bright grains and dark grains. And we're seeing that. In fact, as I was zooming around these images, I felt like I was miniaturized and running around on a tiny, little Bennu.

GREENFIELDBOYCE: Early tests in the lab show that the asteroid material contains water bearing clay minerals. And Lauretta says asteroids may have delivered water to the early Earth, creating our oceans and making it habitable. The rocks also contain another key ingredient for life, carbon, and there's a lot of it. Daniel Glavin is a sample analyst with NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center.

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DANIEL GLAVIN: At the time this data came back, I mean, there were scientists on the team going, wow, oh, my God.

GREENFIELDBOYCE: The rock seems to be loaded with organic material. Asteroids might have seeded Earth with it.

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GLAVIN: OSIRIS-REx, the team, we picked the right asteroid. And not only that, we brought back the right sample, right? This stuff is an astrobiologist's dream.

GREENFIELDBOYCE: And so far, researchers have only been looking at the dirt and grains of rock stuck to the outside of the sample collection device. Scientists still haven't opened that device up. It's a painstaking process. And the bulk of the rocks nabbed from Bennu are still locked inside.

Nell Greenfieldboyce, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Nell Greenfieldboyce is a NPR science correspondent.

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