The OSIRIS-REx space probe, which since last week has been orbiting the asteroid Bennu, has discovered the presence of water on the primitive asteroid made up of the same molecules that gave rise to life on Earth, NASA reported on Monday.
"The presence of hydrated minerals across the asteroid confirms that Bennu, a remnant from early in the formation of the solar system, is an excellent specimen for the OSIRIS-REx mission to study the composition of primitive volatiles and organics," said Amy Simon, deputy instrument scientist for the OSIRIS-REx Visible and Infrared Spectrometer (OVIRS) at NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Maryland.
"When samples of this material are returned by the mission to Earth in 2023, scientists will receive a treasure trove of new information about the history and evolution of our solar system," she added.
The information, obtained thanks to two spectrometers - the OVIRS and another one called the OTES - with which the spacecraft is equipped, indicated the presence of hydroxyls, molecules that contain atoms of oxygen and hydrogen.
Scientists in charge of the mission "suspect" that these hydroxyls are found in all planetoids, the statement said, although NASA believes that their presence could be merely residual and may not indicate the presence of liquid water itself.
Given that Bennu is too small to hold water, the discovery of the hydroxyl groups indicates that at some point in the past there was liquid water on some parallel body, in all likelihood a much larger asteroid, NASA said.
On Dec. 3, NASA had announced that OSIRIS-REx had completed the first phase of its mission, which consisted in achieving orbit around the asteroid, and now it will accompany Bennu as if it were a moon or satellite of the larger body and will study assorted features of Bennu itself and low-gravity asteroids in general.
Over the coming year, the probe will work on locating an ideal spot to land on the asteroid with the aim of collecting samples that can be analyzed when the spacecraft returns to Earth.