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    This perilous mission to an asteroid might teach us about our origins

    When most people imagine an asteroid, they think of disaster: extinction level events that blot out the sun and exterminate whole evolutionary lines. In pop culture, asteroids are both a physical manifestation of chaos beyond human control and a vector for heroism — “Armageddon” (1998) depicts our brave protagonists trying to stop an impending impact, while in the more recent “Don’t Look Up” (2021), the body careening toward Earth functions as an apt stand-in for our own floundering in the face of climate change. The asteroid of our imaginations is almost always a fist, menacingly swinging toward Earth through the dark void of space: By the time you see it, it’s too late.

    In “The Asteroid Hunter: A Scientist’s Journey to the Dawn of our Solar System,” Dante S. Lauretta begins with the asteroid-as-menace, too. As principal investigator of NASA’s (deep breath) Origins, Spectral Interpretation, Resource Identification, and Security-Regolith Explorer (blessedly known by its catchier acronym, OSIRIS-REx), Lauretta begins with a prologue dedicated to the destructive potential of his mission’s quarry, a near-Earth asteroid known as Bennu. If an asteroid could sue for libel, Bennu would have a case: Lauretta tells us Bennu is a freight train, a bomb, a bringer of earthquakes, hurricane-force winds, and ear-shattering blast waves. It’s a veritable hand of god, looming in orbit near our planet, capable of destroying life as we know it.

    Lauretta’s not wrong, of course — nor does this villainous portrait of Bennu come as a surprise. Near-Earth asteroids are a major security concern, and many billions of dollars have gone to funding ever more careful inventories and studies of these stealthy space rocks. The OSIRIS-REx spacecraft had a particularly ambitious mission: Launched in 2016, it flew out to Bennu, and spent two years studying this potentially hazardous asteroid up close, before collecting a sample of Bennu’s precious dirt and sending it back to Earth (where it landed safely late last year). Ensuring that humanity doesn’t literally go the way of the dinosaurs is a major motivator for funding asteroid research, and rightly so. In framing the story of the OSIRIS-REx mission in terms of planetary safety, Lauretta treads familiar ground: The mission team becomes our band of heroes, struggling through funding denials, equipment challenges and a target with more than a few surprises within its rocky confines.

    This muscular tale of bravado and conquest is the story one expects from “The Asteroid Hunter, but it isn’t the most interesting story in the book. Instead, what makes Lauretta’s memoir compelling is the vein of fragility that runs through it. It’s a thread that first appears in the book’s “interludes,” short fictional interstitials that tell of two carbon atoms — one a part of the fine gravel of Bennu’s regolith, the other part of the author himself — born together but separated by cosmic vicissitude until OSIRIS-REx reunites them. While these interludes are only brief moments in a narrative that covers more than three decades in Lauretta’s life (and billions of miles for the OSIRIS-REx mission) they convey deep truth: that human beings, and everything we know and find familiar, were once infinitesimally small atoms forged in the hearts of long-dead stars, and that our origins are fundamentally the same as seemingly alien, unimaginably distant rocks in space. At some fundamental level, then, the hunter and the prey are one and the same. In these interludes, Lauretta delicately sets up the long chain of chance that brings these two particles together again.

    We are used to downing stories of space exploration that come to us like stiff drinks, served neat, redolent with the high ester aromas of machismo. This is a consequence not only of gender imbalance in science, but of the emphasis on strength and resilience that is often used to assure funding agencies and taxpayers that their dollars are being put to good use. Readers curious about how space missions go from idea to liftoff will appreciate hearing about the incredible amount of forethought, creativity and battle-testing that spacecraft and the many people who manage them (often hundreds of them, over a mission’s lifetime) have to go through. And certainly, the success of the OSIRIS-REx mission has been made possible by the tremendous force of human labor and grit.

    Having said that, the unknown remains the gremlin in the gears: OSIRIS-REx arrives in orbit around Bennu only to find itself in a peppery mist of stones unexpectedly ejected from the asteroid’s surface. It turns out to be more a pile of loosely bound rubble than a single intransigent block, flaking like a saltine at the slightest touch. Much like best-laid plans, its solidity is an illusion. At some point, the stolid scientific bravado falls away, even when almost everything works out, an experience that Lauretta captures with clarity.

    Along the path to OSIRIS-REx reaching Bennu and bringing its scientific bounty home, readers learn of other space missions that faltered or were foiled by the unforeseeable. Looking to these failures, even the steeliest scientist feels nauseous fear for their own work, but also understands them as an opportunity to learn lessons that can ensure their own mission’s success. Still, not every mistake is a lesson — sometimes, things simply don’t go according to plan. Even after OSIRIS-REx returned its sample home last September, a wild success by any measure, the mission team found its investigation stymied when its sample collection case spent its first three months back on Earth stuck shut like an uncooperative pickle jar before the team could finally retrieve its precious contents.

    Sure, studying asteroids like Bennu can help us better understand how to handle a potential impact, but, again, that’s hardly the real story here. Rather, the humble pebbles that the team finally unboxed are a time machine to the very beginnings of our solar system, the common origin we share not only with other living things, but with everything that exists in our corner of the cosmos, alive or not. While meteorites routinely land on our planet, they are transformed by the tremendous heat of blazing through Earth’s atmosphere, and further changed by the environment of our planet. By contrast, OSIRIS-REx ferried Bennu’s dusky carbon silt back unaltered, still bearing the traces of what our solar system was like when life was getting started here on Earth.

    We don’t yet know how exactly life on Earth began. We do, however, know that humanity, and all the life we see around us, is built on a complex scaffolding of carbon atoms, those sociable little particles that bond to one another so well. Presumably, at some point, there was both chance and fragility in the process, an intersection of possibilities that found success, where there had been only failure before. And sometimes, as was the case when a young Lauretta opened a student newspaper to see an ad that read “WORK FOR NASA,” the entire arc of the universe can be changed in a single, subtle moment.

    Lucianne Walkowicz is an astronomer, movement artist and educator based in Chicago.

    A Scientist’s Journey to the Dawn of our Solar System

    Grand Central. 320 pp. $30



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