Scientists have discovered evidence of abundant water-bearing minerals on the surface of the near-Earth asteroid Bennu.
Using early spectral data from NASA's OSIRIS-REx spacecraft orbiting the asteroid, the team identified infrared properties similar to those in a type of meteorite called carbonaceous chondrites.
"Scientists are interested in the composition of Bennu because similar objects may have seeded the Earth with water and organic materials," said Victoria Hamilton, a mission co-investigator from Southwest Research Institute in the US.
"OSIRIS-REx data confirm previous ground-based observations pointing to aqueously altered, hydrated minerals on the surface of the asteroid," said Hamilton, lead author of the study published in the journal Nature Astronomy.
Typical planetary models show that around 4.6 billion years ago, the solar system formed from the gravitational collapse of a giant nebular cloud.
The Sun, planets and other objects such as asteroids and comets formed as materials within the collapsing cloud clumped together in a process known as accretion.
Carbonaceous chondrites, which come from asteroids, show evidence for post-accretion interactions with water and ice that led to chemical reactions that produce hydrated minerals.
However, these meteorites and their parent bodies formed close to the beginning of the solar system, they may provide clues to the distribution, abundance and movements of water in the solar disk at these times.
"During planetary formation, scientists believe that water was one of many chemical components that accreted to form Earth," said Hamilton.
"However, most scientists think additional water was delivered in part by comets and pieces of asteroids, including water-bearing carbonaceous meteorites," she said.
Many of these meteorites also contain prebiotic organic chemicals and amino acids, which are precursors to the origin of life.
The details of water delivery to Earth as well as the larger issue of the different inventories of water ice in the early solar system affect how we view solar system formation, researchers said.
Two types of carbonaceous chondrites called CI and CM chondrites