TUCSON, Ariz. -- Researchers from the University of Arizona released the first findings from their OSIRIS-REx mission Monday.
The probe established an orbit around the asteroid Bennu one week earlier.
Their findings detail molecules called hydroxyls, made up of oxygen and hydrogen, inside clay molecules that would support water.
Researchers said Bennu is too small to support liquid water so those traces must have come from the larger parent asteroid from which Bennu broke off.
"This finding may provide an important link between what we think happened in space with asteroids like Bennu and what we see in the meteorites that scientists study in the lab," said Ellen Howell, senior research scientist at the UA's Lunar and Planetary Laboratory and a member of the mission's spectral analysis group. "It is very exciting to see these hydrated minerals distributed across Bennu's surface, because it suggests they are an intrinsic part of Bennu's composition, not just sprinkled on its surface by an impactor."
Initial images from OSIRIS-REx show the asteroid looks similar to what researchers projected including the size and locations of most of the boulders on Bennu's surface.
One exception, a boulder near the asteroid's south pole is five-times larger than what they projected.
The initial projections came from radar imaging back in 1999.
"Radar observations don't give us any information about colors or brightness of the object, so it is really interesting to see the asteroid up close through the eyes of OSIRIS-REx," Science Team Chief Michael Nolan said. "As we are getting more details, we are figuring out where the craters and boulders are, and we were very pleasantly surprised that virtually every little bump we saw in our radar image back then is actually really there."
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OSIRIS-REx will orbit the asteroid for more than two years before easing in and taking a sample.
The imaging from the probe is helping researchers find the perfect spot for OSIRIS-REx to safely touch the surface.
"Our initial data show that the team picked the right asteroid as the target of the OSIRIS-REx mission. We have not discovered any insurmountable issues at Bennu so far," said Dante Lauretta, OSIRIS-REx principal investigator and professor of planetary science and cosmochemistry at LPL. "The spacecraft is healthy and the science instruments are working better than required. It is time now for our adventure to begin."
Researchers said they hope samples from Bennu will help them understand the composition and chemistry of early planets, and whether asteroids contain any of the basic materials for human life.
OSIRIS-REx is on course to break two space craft records; the smallest body every orbited by a space craft, and the closest orbit of a planetary body to any space craft.
"What used to be science fiction is now a reality," said UA President Robert C. Robbins. "Our work at Bennu brings us a step closer to the possibility of asteroids providing astronauts on future missions into the solar system with resources like fuel and water."