“What is at stake is understanding the origin of life,” says astrophysicist Antonella Barucci

“What is at stake is understanding the origin of life,” says astrophysicist Antonella Barucci

The space probe, which was launched seven years ago, landed on Sunday in the Great Salt Lake Desert in the United States. Scientists expect to be able to analyze asteroid samples taken over several years, which may help us learn more about the origins of our planetary system.

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The Osiris-Rex space probe will land on September 24, 2023 in the desert of Utah (United States).  (Mark Garlick / SCIENCE PHOTO LIBRA / MGA / AFP)

Seven years after its launch, the Osiris-Rex space probe returns to Earth. On board the capsule, which will land on Sunday, September 24, in the Great Salt Lake Desert in Utah (United States), the dust resulting from the asteroid Bennu, which was captured by the robot, can shed light on the origin of our planetary system. Antonella Barucci, a planetary astrophysicist at the Paris Observatory who specializes in exploring the solar system, explains to us the challenges of this mission that she was involved in investigating.

franceinfo: What was the OSIRIS-REx mission looking for in space?

Antonella Barucci : The Osiris-Rex space probe was launched in September 2016 to the asteroid Bennu, which orbits the Sun. It returns to Earth after a two-year journey, loaded with “primitive material” taken from the asteroid by a robot, between 2018 and 2021. Concretely, this matter was present before the formation of our solar system and would likely be eliminated. Light on the origins of our planetary system. The goal was to take 60 grams, and I think we’ll have plenty in the end.

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What will your business focus on now?

A major area of ​​research will focus on the asteroid’s organic compounds, i.e. the carbon-containing elements that make up life as we know it. These tiny grains have been around for more than 4.5 billion years and bear witness to the formation of our solar system. Their study will allow it to be dated more accurately and to better understand the materials that make up its origin.

We will also search for information about interstellar environments (the matter that fills the interstellar space in a galaxy), about the protosolar nebula (the cloud that gave birth to our solar system), about asteroids, and about the formation of our planet. …What is at stake is understanding the origin of life.

Does this mean that we will soon solve the mystery of the origin of life?

Not so fast! All this work takes a lot of time. I personally have been working on this mission since 2009… and NASA will gradually communicate its progress over the coming years. This is the first time that the US space agency has made such a collection of raw materials. The Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency, JAXA, has already conducted similar sampling on two other asteroids, Itokawa and Ryugu. Our work is complementary: it is a new piece in the puzzle that allows us to uncover the mystery of the origins of life.

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