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What are asteroids, and why do we study them?

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Hi, I’m Tim and I like science. When you think of an asteroid, what do you picture? Trouble, right? I mean, ask a dinosaur … But, asteroids aren’t just these big rocks hurtling wildly through space. They actually hold clues that can help us go back in time and unlock some incredible mysteries. Here’s the story: At the very beginning of the solar system, there was this giant swirling disk of gas and dust. Little pieces started running into each other and sticking together. These larger bits attracted more pieces and kept growing and growing and growing… Eventually the biggest ones became the planets in our solar system. But, some of the leftover bits never made it into planets: asteroids. Asteroids have been orbiting the Sun for the last four and half billion years, occasionally crashing into each other, but pretty much unchanged from how they formed in the first place. They are cosmic time capsules, giving us information about the earliest history of the solar system. Now imagine if we could go collect a piece of an asteroid and study it in labs here on Earth! It would help us answer questions we’ve been wondering about for years, like: What are planets made of? How did they form? How have they evolved? Think of the Earth as a cookie. Exploring an asteroid is kind of like going back into the cosmic mixing bowl, before all of the ingredients were baked, cooled and crumbled… If you were asked: what is this cookie made of ? You could probably figure it out but it would be pretty difficult. Getting an asteroid sample is like bringing home bits of flour, some grains of sugar and salt, and a chocolate chip. It shows us the raw materials of the planets and what they were like before they were all mixed together and changed. So really, the sample allows us to start piecing together how the Earth came to be in the first place! That’s why an asteroid sample return mission like OSIRIS-REx is so incredible and why the Canadian Space Agency is so excited to be part of it. I’m okay. I’m here!

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