Welcome to the new NASA website. We’re working to continuously improve your web experience. If you don't find what you are looking for, give feedback.

Suggested Searches

Ep. 253: The Blueprint of Life

Season 1Episode 253Aug 19, 2022

Danny Glavin reviews a breakthrough research technique that may help us better understand how life on Earth began. HWHAP Episode 253.

Houston We Have a Podcast Ep. 253 The Blueprint of Life

Houston We Have a Podcast Ep. 253 The Blueprint of Life

From Earth orbit to the Moon and Mars, explore the world of human spaceflight with NASA each week on the official podcast of the Johnson Space Center in Houston, Texas. Listen to in-depth conversations with the astronauts, scientists and engineers who make it possible.

On Episode 253, Danny Glavin reviews a breakthrough research technique that may help us better understand how life on Earth began. This episode was recorded on June 10, 2022.

HWHAP Logo 2021


Gary Jordan (Host): Houston, we have a podcast! Welcome to the official podcast of the NASA Johnson Space Center, Episode 253, “The Blueprint of Life.” I’m Gary Jordan and I’ll be your host today. On this podcast, we bring in the experts, scientists, engineers, and astronauts all to let you know what’s going on in the world of human spaceflight. Have you ever wondered where life began, like truly began? Well, we may have just found the answer for the original blueprint of life through asteroids. Using analyses an international team joined by NASA researchers, recently made this discovery of the last two of the five informational units of DNA (deoxyribonucleic acid) and RNA (ribonucleic acid) that had yet to be discovered in samples from meteorites. This research discovery points to more evidence than ever before that a complete set of nucleobases used in life today could have been available when life first emerged. As scientists state, it’s unlikely for DNA to have ever been formed in a meteorite, but this finding does reveal that genetics are available for transmission and may have served as the instructional manual of life’s design on Earth as we know it. To talk more in depth about this topic, we have astrobiologist and co-author of a paper on this research, Dr. Daniel Glavin, goes by Danny, joining us from NASA Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Maryland. Danny looks for the building blocks of life in extraterrestrial materials, including meteorites, asteroids, comets, and other interplanetary dust particles. He earned a B.S. in physics from the University of California in, at San Diego in 1996, and the Ph.D. in Earth sciences from the Scripps Institute of Oceanography in 2001. He joined the 2002 to 2003 Antarctic Search for Meteorites team, and spent six weeks searching for meteorites in Antarctica. In 2003, Dr. Glavin joined the NASA Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Maryland. Glavin is a co-investigator on NASA’s OSIRIS-REx (Origins, Spectral Interpretation, Resource Identification, Security-Regolith Explorer) asteroid sample return mission and is leading the team that will study the organic composition of pristine samples of asteroid Bennu that will land on Earth in September of 2023. In recognition of Dr. Glavin’s meteorite research, the International Astronomical Union named an asteroid after him, #24480, Asteroid Glavin. As co-author of this groundbreaking asteroid research, it’s only fitting that Danny will be giving us an in-depth look into this discovery and what it may mean for the inception of life on Earth. In addition, he’ll also be discovering how this discovery provides an effective way to examine information of asteroids in the future, particularly on NASA’s OSIRIS-REx mission, where he serves as co-investigator. With that, let’s get right into the podcast. Enjoy.


Host: Danny Glavin, thanks so much for coming on Houston We Have a Podcast today.

Danny Glavin: Thanks, Gary. Excited to be here and talk about all the interesting stuff going on in solar system science these days. It’s, it’s exciting time, no doubt.

Host: You know, that’s exactly where I wanted to start, Danny, as you said, it’s an exciting time. That’s, that’s, it, it is, there’s a lot happening in your world. Can you tell me about just, just what it’s like in, in your world right now, and, and what the, what the community is like to, to really add to what this is, and that is, you know, an exciting time.

Danny Glavin: Yeah, I mean, so, you know, one of the key questions we’re, we’re trying to answer is, you know, are we alone? You know, where does life come from? And, you know, we’re exploring planets in the solar system, Mars gets a lot of attention. But we’ve also got these really exciting sample return missions in the work. Hayabusa2, which is bringing back samples from asteroid Ryugu, and OSIRIS-REx, which is bringing back samples of Bennu — actually has them now and it’s on its way back to Earth. And as a scientist you, you really want samples in the lab. This is how you, you, you really get the knowledge you need to know and, and, and investigate these materials, just, you know, in great detail, more detail than what’s possible by in situ measurements. And so it’s really, it’s the golden age for, for sample return. We’ve got materials coming back from asteroids. We’ve got a Mars sample return mission in the works, which is exciting. Perseverance is collecting cores on Mars. And, yeah, I just can’t wait to get these materials back in the lab.

Host: It’s very exciting. And I, I think there’s a little bit of that, so we’re going to dive into that, just, just some of the sample returns and, and why that’s so important. And then, we’ll also talk about some of the techniques. I think that’s a very important, important part of today’s story is just the techniques that have improved to allow some of these discoveries that we’re going to go over. It’s a very interesting world. You asked the question, are we alone? It’s like, when I think about that, that’s, to me, that’s one of the ultimate questions, right? Are we alone in the universe? And there had to be something in your childhood that drew you to this as a, to, to dedicate your career to this, to figuring out are we alone in the universe. So, so tell me about some of the, what, what interest sparked for you early on and, and your path to get you where you are today?

Danny Glavin: Yeah. You know, I, I, I didn’t always necessarily want to be an astrobiologist, but thinking back, you know, to my childhood, I was always interested in space. You know, I drew pictures of rockets and, and aliens. You know, my parents actually just sent me some of them. It was kind of funny to look at back…

Host: Ah, cool.

Danny Glavin:… at those. And, you know, on all our trips I would also, you know, I was collecting rocks and minerals and was just really fascinated by rocks in general. And, you know, so maybe it’s no surprise that I ended up, you know, having a career where I’m studying meteorites, right? Space rocks. And I think that kind of when the light bulb went off for me, when I, when I realized that astrobiology was where I needed to be and, you know, wanted to make a career out of, it was back in 1996. I was doing an internship with Professor Jeff Bada at the Scripps Institution of Oceanography in San Diego. And this was part of the NASA Specialized Center of Research and Training, or NSCORT exobiology program. And we were working away, and Jeff had got me interested in studying meteorites, but there was a huge announcement that summer, Allan Hills 84001, which is a, a meteorite from Mars. It was blown off the surface, landed in Antarctica, and was reported to have these, evidence of, you know, extinct life. So, you know, the first evidence of Mars life. And, you know, as folks over the years have looked closer at the data, it, it’s becoming clear that maybe it’s not, you know, the smoking gun evidence for life. But for me at the time, I was like, wow. The, the, the idea that meteorites could transport, you know, organic compounds and, and maybe the building blocks of life, you know, between Earth and Mars, you know, maybe life didn’t start on the Earth, right? Maybe it started on, on Mars and was delivered here by a Mars meteorite. And, you know, in that sense, we’re all Martians. And I just, I just, I was fascinated with this idea of the transport of the building blocks of life in our solar system by meteorites. And so that got me into, you know, studying meteorites, not, not just Martian meteorites but carbonaceous meteorites, which we’ll talk more about, and looking for the chemical building blocks, specifically, in these materials, and yeah, basically made a career out of that now.

Host: Excellent. Well, let’s see if our listeners can, can find that same spark by going into sort of the, the 101 of, of just what you do in your daily life. There’s, there’s a lot of elements to this. There’s, there’s the meteorite component, there’s the, there’s the building blocks of life, and, and I wanted to sort of start there, was just understanding what, what are you looking for, right, when you look at these rocks, there’s the, there are these building blocks, there are these basic things that you’re looking for. Can you give us sort of an idea of just the 101 of the building blocks of life?

Danny Glavin: Yeah. So, I mean, all life on Earth is, is made up of nucleic acids, DNA, and, and RNA. You know, they, they play critical roles in, in, in life, on Earth, they carry the genetic information, right? So the, the DNA and RNA is, is really the genetic blueprint of a cell. It has all the instructions for everything that functions in a cell. And, you know, frankly speaking, without DNA and RNA, you know, life just wouldn’t exist as we know it. So it’s, it’s just fundamental. But it’s not just nucleic acids. We’re also interested in looking for amino acids, which are the building blocks of proteins and enzymes, which, you know, catalyze all the, the chemical reactions in life. We’re interested in looking for sugars, another component of DNA and RNA. And lipids, which are the building blocks of cell membranes. And so, it’s these kind of key classes of organic compounds, which we call the building blocks, right, for short, are, are what we’re really interested in looking at when we study carbon-rich meteorite samples.

Host: Hmm. Now, there are these things called purines and pyrimidines. I hope I’m saying that right. Those, what are those in this, in this relationship?

Danny Glavin: Yeah. So purines and pyrimidines, these also known as nucleobases. This is, this is the structural component of the, the genetic code, if you will, in DNA and RNA. So we all, you know, you can imagine that DNA, the double helix, right, it’s like the ladder that is kind of rotating about itself. Well, the, the purines and pyrimidines form these base pairs. It’s, you know, adenine, cytosine, thymine, guanine, and uracil. Those are the, the, the purines and pyrimidines in DNA and RNA. And these things pair up together to form, you know, the steps of the ladder, if you will, the rungs of the ladder. And that’s our genetic code, right? That sequence of adenine, you know, guanine, and cytosine, thymine, and that’s, that is the genetic code, that’s…so they are key components of that, yeah, fundamental units of, of, of DNA and RNA. And, yeah, these are the compounds that we’re, we’re actually discovering in meteorites, which is, which is just fascinating.

Host: Now, there’s a particular kind of meteorite, I think, that maybe you’re finding, and, and you, you mentioned, you mentioned the, the one from Mars that maybe wasn’t, you know, it looked exciting, but then, but then didn’t exactly yield the results that you were looking for. But there’s this idea that, that the, these carbonaceous meteorites have, maybe these, these things that you’re looking for, these nucleobases. Can you talk, talk about why, why they are so interesting when it comes to looking for life?

Danny Glavin: Yeah, so these, you know, we, we call them carbonaceous condrites, but they’re basically, carbon-rich meteorites. And by carbon-rich it’s, you know, it’s like two weight percent, you know, of the, of the total mass of the meteorite is carbon. So, you know, we’re not talking about charcoal, you know, briquettes, but still two, two weight percent’s a lot of, a lot of organic mass. And within that is just a tremendous amount of organic complexity. So we look at the, the soluble organics, so we extract them in solvents to study these. And what’s so interesting about these carbon-rich meteorites is we believe they come from asteroids, right, which are the, the remnants of early solar system formation. So these are, these are the fossils of the solar system. They’re, they’re four and a half billion years old, right? And they’ve preserved, they’ve, you know, frozen in time, if you will, that early chemistry, the organic chemistry that was happening in the solar system. And we study these because on Earth, you know, for looking for the prebiotic chemistry, that record has been completely destroyed in terrestrial rocks, ancient rocks, through plate tectonics, erosion, and of course, you know, all the life here which, you know, contaminates everything. And so, we have to, we have to study these pristine, you know, carbon-rich meteorites to, to really understand the chemistry that, that led to the origin of life.

Host: OK. Now yeah, they’re, they’re basically like floating artifacts that you can, that you can, that are, that preserve this, this historic record very, very nicely. I can, I can understand that. Now when you enter into, to the world, you talked about, you talked about this, this sample from Mars that was delivered to Antarctica that excited you to go into this field: can you talk about just where, where the research was in terms of searching for these nucleobases in these carbonaceous meteorites; where, where we were, and since you’ve been in the field, what sort of the things that, the research that you have done to get us, you know, one of the things that I, that I understand was there, there are these five nucleobases, and then for a while we, we understood three, but when we, we were on the hunt for the other two, and we’ll get to that a little bit later, but just, just, just that progression of, of how the science evolved to find these nucleobases in these, in these meteorites?

Danny Glavin: Yeah. So back in, you know, 1996, I guess we’ll start with the Allan Hills Martian meteorite. We didn’t really have the techniques to, to, to look for these nucleobase compounds with the sensitivity that we had, that we had now have today. So they just, they weren’t optimized for those compounds. And so, we didn’t, you know, we didn’t really look for them back then. Over the years, you know, we’ve developed better techniques to study these compounds, to today where we have, you know, techniques that are a hundred, you know, a thousand times more sensitive than the techniques that we had available back then. This, the meteorites are challenging though, you know, they, they can get contaminated very easily by their surrounding environment. So that’s an extra layer of difficulty here when you’re studying these. But nevertheless, we have ways to kind of get around that and, and search for these nucleobases, like I said, using highly-sensitive techniques that we have available now. And the real exciting thing about this paper that we published recently is that we found two nucleobases, cytosine and thymine: these are the pyrimidines that had not been reported before in any meteorite. They were truly missing, which was also a bit of, you know, kind of a bit of a head scratcher because, you know, when we do experiments in the lab and we try to make these compounds that they’re, we can make them, they’re, they’re easily made, and so why, why weren’t we finding them in these meteorites? That was a bit of a mystery, but, yeah, now, now we have it, we’ve completed the entire set of the five nucleobases in DNA and RNA and yeah, it’s, it’s, it’s really exciting.

Host: So can you talk about just why, why we needed to find the other two, because you talked about, we’ll get into the techniques a little bit later, but for, but I guess the first three were maybe a little bit easier to find using the techniques that you had at the time, the other two were a little bit more challenging, but just high level, why was it important to find all five to, all five nucleobases?

Danny Glavin: Yeah, so, I mean, like I mentioned earlier, these nucleobases form base pairs, right, a purine with a pyrimidine, and we were missing a couple of the pyrimidines. So, essentially high level, unable to form, you know, the base pairs that you need, that you need in…

Host: There you go.

Danny Glavin:… in DNA. And so we, we found them, and you know, now we know we can form the, the base pairs, and that those materials, you know, more importantly, would’ve been delivered to the early Earth, right, and served as part of that prebiotic chemical soup that, that eventually led to life. And this is actually a big, a big deal. A big question. Most people who study early Earth, the early Earth’s atmosphere, have kind of concluded that the gases is in the atmosphere — carbon dioxide, nitrogen –weren’t, aren’t really conducive to making these types of compounds. And that, that’s where you get this exogenous delivery theory, right, of the origin of life that, well, if you couldn’t make them on the Earth as a homegrown process, maybe they were delivered by asteroids and comets? And again, our work is suggesting that regardless of what the early Earth’s atmosphere was, you know, we, it, would’ve been seeded with these important building blocks of life.

Host: That’s huge, the fact, yeah, and, and that, that the evidence is trending towards that way is, is very exciting. Let’s, let, let’s dive into the techniques a little bit. You used like a, I think the way you described it in, in like an overview of the paper was, it was like a hot brew versus cold brew technique.

Danny Glavin: Yeah.

Host: And, and can you sort of describe those and then why the, to what the techniques were that led you to, you know, the, these last two, which were more difficult to find?

Danny Glavin: Yeah.

Host: So, so sort of the difference there?

Danny Glavin:Yeah. So, you know, the, the acid extraction approach is, is sort of hot, yeah, we call it making meteorite tea.

Host: Meteorite tea.

Danny Glavin: Where you basically, you, you boil the, the meteorite powders in, in solvents. But for nucleobases, acids have been used even since the 60s, right, to extract the bases. So formic acid, hydrochloric acid, and these are pretty harsh chemicals, right? You wouldn’t want to drink this tea, if, if you had it. And what we had found is that actually the acid extraction, although it could extract some of the nucleobases, some of the more fragile ones like these pyrimidines that we’re finding now would’ve been destroyed during that extraction process. And we didn’t really realize that at the time. And so, yeah, with, with the help of our Japanese colleagues, we developed this, we call it the cold brew now rather than the hot tea. But basically, it’s a very mild extraction. So we use water at cold temperatures, we basically sonicate, we use ultrasonication, it’s essentially, you’re just vibrating the powders in, in water, in a sonicator and, in a, in a zero degree C bath, so we have an ice bath, so we try to keep everything cold. And, yeah, we’re able to extract these more fragile nucleobases using that method, which is great. It actually, you know, I want to go back and, and kind of revisit all of the, the other meteorites that we’ve studied using this technique.

Host: Yeah.

Danny Glavin: And because we, we were probably missing a whole bunch, a whole bunch of material, whole bunch of nucleobases in previous analyses. So, yeah. There’s no doubt that this is, this is the way to go, this cold brew technique, and we’re going to apply it to other meteorites and eventually, you know, samples returned from asteroids as well.

Host: Does the cold brew technique allow you to see all of the five of the nucleobases or just those last two?

Danny Glavin: Yeah, so we actually see all five.

Host: Oh.

Danny Glavin: And, and so, the Murchison meteorite is one of the more famous carbonaceous, sort of the gold standard for this, for this kind of work. Fell in Australia in 1969. And actually, it’s an interesting story. We got a piece of this Murchison sample, even though it fell in 1969, but it had been kept sealed in this glass desiccator, hermetically sealed for decades. And we only recently opened it about five years ago and studied it and found it was like one of the cleanest, you know, Murchison fragments we’ve ever seen. And so, this was one of the ones that we used as, as part of this study and yeah, all five nucleobases were found in this one meteorite, which is pretty cool. And it’s, it turns out it’s, it’s not unique, right? We, we studied two other meteorites as part of this study: the Murray meteorite, which fell in Kentucky in 1950, and then the Tagish Lake meteorite, which fell in an ice lake, the Tagish Lake, in 2000 in Canada. And all three of these meteorites had these nucleobase compounds. So, you know, it’s likely that these, these compounds are, are really ubiquitous; three different meteorites, they all have them. This is probably quite common to have these compounds in these carbonaceous meteorites.

Host: So just like, I hope this is not a dumb question, but you tell me. These building blocks of life, DNA, does that, I mean, it’s, it’s really, is it, can you theorize that these building blocks are ubiquitous among what, maybe what could be found anywhere in the galaxy or the solar system, that the same building blocks are used for life potentially anywhere in the universe? Is that sort of a, I mean, just, is that like a, is maybe this is a dumb question?

Danny Glavin: Well, no, I mean, I, I kind of think back to Carl Sagan’s statement, right, that we’re all made of stardust, right, we’re all, we’re all, you know, all of the carbon, you know, all of these basic elements are produced in stars. I can speak to our solar system, right, because we have access to actual samples from our solar system, and yeah, they seem to be ubiquitous here. So, you know, not only would these compounds have been delivered to, to Earth, but they’d be delivered to Mars and, and you know, some of the other planets in, in our solar system as well, providing the building blocks to those locations too. So, yeah, I think that, I think the search for life, the search for these building blocks and hopefully more complex polymers, at some point, my, my, my gut, tells me that, you know, we’re, all these planets are receiving the same types of starting materials, right; certainly there’s some evol, chemical evolution that would need to be, happen before life, you know, you have the emergence of life. But I, my assumption is that the building blocks, at least will probably be fairly similar, right? There’ll be amino acids and nucleobases probably involved in life if we ever detect it on Mars. Will they be the same set? I don’t know, but I would be shocked if, you know, we find life somewhere else and it wasn’t based on these fundamental, you know, carbon organic building blocks of life.

Host: Very fascinating. Very fascinating. Let’s talk about the, the team for a second. One of the things you mentioned when you were talking about the techniques and everything, is that you’re working internationally, you’re working with, with Japanese colleagues. Can you talk about the team, the research, the facilities that you guys are using to actually conduct the techniques and how you guys are working together?

Danny Glavin: Yeah. This is actually, so this collaboration that we have with our, the Japanese team members that are on this paper has been going on for years now. Actually, NASA and JAXA (Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency), which is the Japanese space agency, have a, have a collaboration, official international collaboration, on both the Hayabusa2 mission, which is bringing back samples from master Ryugu, and OSIRIS-REx, which is bringing back samples from Bennu currently on its way back. And so, we’ve been working together for, for years now, studying meteorites, like Murchison and, and others, to kind of get ready for these sample return missions. And so that collaboration has been really fruitful. It includes myself and, and Jason Dworkin, we work at NASA Goddard. And then Yasuhiro Oba from Hokkaido University in Japan is the lead author of the study, and then he works with Yoshinori Takano and Toshiki Koga from JAMSTEC (Japan Agency for Marine-Earth Science and Technology), Yoshihiro Furukawa from Tohoku University, and Hiroshi Naraoka from Kyushu University. And I definitely have to give them a lot of credit, you know, they, they came up with this cold brew idea.

Host: Awesome.

Danny Glavin: And, you know, really had this, this really nice liquid chromatography, high-resolution mass spec[troscopy] technique, which we can talk about more if you want, but really helped, you know, push, push the limits, the state of the art of, to be able to detect these compounds at, at really trace levels. Jason and I have been studying amino acids in some of these meteorites and we provided them with, with these really clean Murchison samples that I had, I had, talked about earlier. And yeah, just working together, working, trying to understand the data. I have to admit that, you know, when we were, we were doing the study and, and, Yasuhiro Oba, the lead author, first told me, you know, we’re finding, you know, all five nucleobases in that Murchison sample you sent, and I’m like, no way; you know, I mean, we, you know, these things have never been reported before, right, it’s got to be contamination. You know, I was like, there’s just no way. And plus, they’re very fragile, cytosine and thymine. I’m like, they, they, they shouldn’t, you know, they shouldn’t be there. But yeah, I mean, working through the data and, you know, the series of arguments that we finally convinced ourselves that these, these compounds had to be extraterrestrial, formed on the parent asteroid of these meteorites. So, pretty exciting, you know, it’s a great group of, of, of folks over there in Japan; look, look forward to many more years of good collaborations and discoveries with them.

Host: That’s great. Do you get to go to Japan often and check out their facilities and the techniques and everything?

Danny Glavin: You know, I was supposed to, and then the something called COVID hit…

Host: Oh, that thing, yeah.

Danny Glavin:… and kind of ruined everything for a lot of people, I guess. But yeah, hoping, you know, once things, things seem to be trending in a better direction with respect to that so probably we’ll be able to travel more internationally. But yeah, absolutely: I think, especially as we get more into the analysis of these returned asteroid samples, there’ll be more in-person meetings I hope. I’m, I’m getting tired of meetings in Teams and, you know, the virtual environment, so can’t wait for more in-person meetings.

Host: I feel you there. Absolutely. And probably the, the time zone difference is probably challenging as well.

Danny Glavin: Yeah. That’s a big challenge. And actually, you know, these, all of those folks I mentioned from Japan are on the OSIRIS-REx team as collaborators, and we’ll be doing similar analysis when those samples come back. And yeah, I intentionally have, like, two different times for telecons, right? So I’ll do one that’s convenient for us on the East Coast, and then we’ll have one, you know, at 11:00 p.m. or midnight so that it’s not at a crazy hour for our Japanese colleagues. So we, we try to spread the pain a little bit.

Host: [Laughter] That’s good you’re sharing that. So, so I want to, I want to sort of gently lead into OSIRIS-REx for a bit, because I think what’s, setting the base here and talking about these discoveries now with the samples that we have on hand and using these techniques, I think it leads into that very nicely. But what I wanted to talk about is just how exciting this, this discovery is. The fact that you’re finding all five nucleobases, that you have these techniques; now, with OSIRIS-REx on its way back, I wonder what you’re doing on the ground to prepare facilities, to prepare the, the people for whenever this, this pristine sample gets back, and we’ll talk about that, that soon, but, the, the facilities on the ground, what are the teams doing now with this exciting revelation that, wow, the cold brew, we got to stick to this…

Danny Glavin: Yeah.

Host:…how, how are you guys working to, to prepare for that samples return?

Danny Glavin: Yeah, so actually, you know, as we, as I speak right now, we’re getting ready for what we’re calling a sample analysis readiness test, or SART, for OSIRIS-REx. And basically it involves using Murchison and, and another carbonaceous condrite to, to practice the techniques that we’re, we’re going to be using and the extraction methods and, you know, we’re not, we’re not bringing back a ton of sample here, right, so these samples are going to be extremely precious. And so right now we’re working to find ways to kind of minimize the amount of sample mass, right, that we need to extract to search for these compounds. And so there’ll be work going on in Japan, here at Goddard and, other, other institutions to really just try to push the limits of, of, of what we think we can detect. And we’re using meteorites to do that, to optimize those, those, those methods. And so that’s what we’re doing right now. The, the SART, the sample analysis readiness test, will happen over the next year. And hopefully, you know, well, not hopefully, we will be ready for samples when they come back from, from Bennu, so.

Host: Excellent. Mastering the techniques, getting everybody on board with the processes and everything. Yes. That’s you, you have some time to do it, right, because that’s, and that’s what we’ll get into now is, is of OSIRIS-REx. OSIRIS-REx is going to be coming back, relatively soon, but you still have some time. Let’s talk about this mission and, and what its purpose was, what its goals, what, were…just overall, what is OSIRIS-REx?

Danny Glavin: Yeah. So OSIRIS-REx is, this is NASA’s first asteroid sample return mission. We’ve never done this before. The OSIRIS-REx acronym stands for Origins, Spectral Interpretation, Resource Identification, Security-Regolith Explorer. Kind of a mouthful. I, I, we on the team we just, we just call it O-Rex, it’s just a lot easier to say that. But the, the primary goal is, is really, yeah, to collect samples from the surface of a carbon-rich asteroid — in this case, asteroid Bennu — and get these samples back to the lab, right, where we can study them in great detail, understand the mineral composition, the organic, you know, the organic matter that we think is present, including, you know, some of the building blocks of life, of course. So the, the, the main goal is really, you know, getting this material from an asteroid back to Earth. And the difference with meteorites is in a lot of cases [with] meteorites, we don’t know where they come, where they came from. We think they came from asteroids, but we don’t know which one. And so this is a really, you know, golden opportunity to study a sample where you know where it came from, you know which asteroid, you know its context, and we can really learn about the history of this sample, the history of Bennu, the or, it will help us understand the origin of the solar system, the timing, the sequence of events, how the, how the planets formed. So it goes way, it goes well beyond, you know, just trying to understand the origin of life. We’re, we’re trying to understand the origin of our solar system as well.

Host: That’s a big deal. Now, now, as I understand it, OSIRIS-REx, the, the mission went out to rendezvous with an asteroid. It landed on it, collected samples, and is on its way back. Were you, were you in mission control for, for any of that? Did you actually get to witness the, the drama of actually landing on the, on the asteroid?

Danny Glavin: Yeah, so I, so I got to go, go to the launch. OSIRIS-REx, you know, launched from Florida, Cape Canaveral, in, in 2016. So I had, you know, my whole family down there with me. And you know, these, if you’ve ever been involved in a mission where you’ve invested in time, launch is, even the launch is stressful. I know they’re pretty routine, but nothing compares to the stress of, you know, going down and trying to collect the first sample ever from an asteroid. I mean, that was, that was, that was intense. So it took us two years to get out there, right? We kind of flew next to the asteroid in, in a, in a flight formation, if you will, mapped it out. One of the first things we noticed when we got there is that, oh my god, there are some big boulders on the surface, and our sampling system wasn’t really designed to handle that; you know, we were designed to collect beach sand, you know, not giant boulders. And so we had to map it out carefully. It took two years to find the ideal spot to collect a sample. It was a pretty small spot. The spacecraft basically comes out — actually doesn’t land on the asteroid, it does what we call a TAG maneuver, or touch and go. So we have a, you know, roughly 10-foot sampling arm, which goes down, the idea is to kind of pogo stick off the surface. We fire nitrogen gas, and it collects a sample — it kind of looks like the, the air filter on a ’57 Chevy. OK. And then, so that, that firing the nitrogen kind of stirs up the, the regolith, is what we call the surface material, and gets it in that container. And we did that back in October at a site called Nightingale, which was a really interesting place. It was, it looked like it had been hit by an impact recently, so it was kind of a fresh crater, so we were collecting sample from the bottom of the crater; had to squeeze in between a couple boulders, one called Mount Doom, to, to basically hit an area about the size of two, two or three parking lot spaces. So this is, this was crazy. And, you know, we came down, hit the surface, didn’t really know what to expect. And it turned out that the arm plunged quite, quite a bit into the surface. So the asteroid was behaving more like, I don’t know, fluffy, you know, a fluid, snow or shaving cream rather than concrete. And we, we went down about a half a meter, the rockets fired, and we got the heck out of there with, with a lot of sample. We think we got, you know, probably at least a couple hundred grams or so of material, which is quite a bit for this type of work. And tucked it away in the sample return capsule. And, yeah, we’re on our way home now, should be landing in the Utah desert on September, September 24th, next year, 2023. So mark your calendars for that date, that’ll be, that’ll be quite exciting. But, yeah, a lot of, I guess, small miracles need to happen for these, these sample return missions, and it’s just so much work. I mean, you kind of don’t want to think about all the time and energy that’s been invested when you’re doing these critical maneuvers, but, and Earth entry will certainly be one of those. And I, yeah, hopefully I can make it out to Utah. That’d be, that’d be amazing to see it, to see it come into the atmosphere and land.

Host: Yeah. I, I imagine an army of scientists rushing towards this capsule, right, trying to get their hands on it.

Danny Glavin: Yeah, it’s actually pretty, pretty highly regulated.

Host: I figured, yeah.

Danny Glavin: It’ll only be a few people. It’s actually the, so it’s the Utah Test and Training Range, which is just west of Salt Lake City, so it’s kind of operated by the Air Force, military zone, and there’s unexploded ordnance and all sorts of stuff out there you got to be careful of.

Host: Of course.

Danny Glavin: So it’s very regulated, but it’s a remote desert, which is what you want when you’re, you know, bringing in samples. You want nobody be around so.

Host: Yes, yeah. Limited obstructions, right?

Danny Glavin: Exactly.

Host: You want to land, land very nicely.

Danny Glavin: Exactly.

Host: Now, now the instruments used to cap, you, you described the instruments used to capture the sample, but I wonder, one of the things that you described earlier on was samples are very easy to contaminate, and I wonder what, what the, what the OSIRIS-REx mission, that’s the return capsule, what it offers to keep those super-precious samples as pristine as possible as you’re landing in the dusty desert?

Danny Glavin: Yeah, this is, this is actually a really good question. And this has been one of the biggest frustrations and challenges with meteorites because once they hit the atmosphere and land and hit the Earth, the, they’re subjected to weathering and all the contamination, right? There’s, there’s life everywhere; there’s bacteria everywhere on the Earth, and that stuff just gets into these samples, which makes it difficult to, right, discriminate between what’s terrestrial and what’s, what’s not. One of the benefits of O-REx is that we, we have very clean sampling mechanism so that the arm and the sampler head, you know, were baked out and cleaned of organics. We use highly, high-purity nitrogen, right — that’s the only thing that really hits the sample when we collect it. And then when the sample gets tucked into the sample return capsule, it’s sealed and it, and, and the return capsule has a, has a filter on it that will trap all organic compounds and water and other stuff in the Earth’s atmosphere. So as we come down through the Earth’s atmosphere, any, any terrestrial atmosphere that gets in is, is filtered. So again, another way to, to kind of protect the samples and keep them clean. And then finally, you know, you can never keep anything, you know, perfectly clean: on the, on the spacecraft itself, in the sample return capsule, we have a bunch of these witness plates. These are plates that basically document any contaminants right in the, in the spacecraft environment that the sample might see. And so we’ll have these witness plates available to us on the sample analysis team and we’ll be studying those and comparing those to the sample just to, to be extra sure that, you know, what we’re seeing is, is not, you know, contamination from the spacecraft or from Earth.

Host: OK. So that, then there’s the challenge of the, this seems like the, the capsule, the return capsule does a pretty good job of keeping it pristine; now you got to get it to some facilities to, to maintain that level of pristineness, and then you got to probably start thinking about how you’re going to get it to all the different researchers that want to get their, their hands on it. What, what are the facilities that we have, what, what, what’s the transport to get it to those facilities, what does that look like to make sure that it remains pristine?

Danny Glavin: OK. So, yeah, after the sample return capsule lands in the Utah desert, it’ll basically be quickly recovered and then transported to the Johnson Space Center in Houston where they’ve basically, you know, put together an entire facility. It’s a, a clean room facility to handle these samples. And really the only thing that these samples had seen up to this point is nitrogen, right, the nitrogen gas; and so they’ll be curated under nitrogen, high-purity nitrogen, and they’ll never see air. And that’s actually pretty important because there’s a lot of moisture in the air, especially on a humid day in the summer in Houston. You know, you, you want to avoid, you know, a lot of humidity, so it’s, it’s temperature-controlled, only dry nitrogen exposure. And the challenge of course, will be how do you get these materials to investigators, right, that are around the world.

Host: Yes.

Danny Glavin: And, and maintain that pristine nature. And so, you know, we’re working on this, this will be part of that sample analysis readiness test, the SART, that I talked about earlier. And so that’ll also be part of the test, you know, how do we ship these materials around the world and keep them clean, you know, so that we can study them in, in a pristine way.

Host: You know, one of the things that I appreciate about this is how, how methodical everything is. You know, we’re, we’re, we have this big mission to return a sample, it’s all for the, this whole mission was really to collect some rocks in, in, in deep space, but it’s just a, to me it’s astounding how, how much effort and, and planning goes into making sure that when they come back, they are treated with such care, and thoughtfulness, because, because there are so many people that have so many good ideas, right, about how, about how to analyze this. And you’re, and you’re a part of that community, when you think about just the, the level of care and, and all the operations folks and the scientists and, and the engineers that have to put this together, it truly is a very, it’s a very collaborative thing, but it seems to be for a bigger purpose.

Danny Glavin: Yeah. I mean, like, I, you know, I mentioned just the level of effort. I mean, I can’t even count the number of meetings and planning meetings and reviews and documentation — NASA loves documentation — but it’s important. I mean, these are precious samples, right? We’ve, we’ve never done this before. Caution’s warranted, planning is definitely warranted. And I will say that, you know, even when the, the couple hundred grams or whatever the mass ends up being comes back, you know, not all of it will be available to our team. Up to 25% of the sample will be studied, but the rest, the 75% or so, will be archived for future generations, right, because, you know, as we talked about earlier, techniques change, right? Things get better. You don’t necessarily do everything the right way or the best way, the first time. And so, by archiving these samples away and keeping them clean, you know, we, we will make them available for future generations that, you know, have techniques that haven’t been invented yet, right…

Host: Right.

Danny Glavin:…to study this material. So that, that’s, that’s another part of sample return that I don’t think a lot of people appreciate is that these samples will be around for generations. You know, we’re still looking at Moon rocks collected by Apollo and, and, and learning new things about the Moon. And, you know, Bennu would be no, no different.

Host: So, when you think about the, what, what, what the, what you are going to be analyzing from Bennu, right, you talked about some, some of your research — there, there might be others that want to do sort of their own research — but you’re going to be looking for, for the nucleobases, you’re going to be working with your, your Japanese colleagues to, to find these; what, what is some of the things that you hope for whenever you get this sample return? Do you hope to find the, the nucleobases and, all five of them, just like you found the other ones, but, but may, maybe, what are you thinking about taking it to the next level in terms of, you know, what’s — the, what’s the goal here?

Danny Glavin: Yeah. So I think what, you know, excites me the most now about this opportunity is that these, these are going to be the cleanest extraterrestrial samples that we’ve ever worked with, right? Very little, if any, biological contamination, we have the witness samples to compare to so that the contaminations can be very well documented. But yeah, I think taking things to the next level, right? I mean, we’ve been looking at amino acids, and nucleobases, but maybe some more complex polymers, like peptides, right, which are, you know, combinations of amino acids joined together where it gets you a step closer, right, to proteins and enzymes. Or, I don’t know, nucleotides, maybe we see a sugar phosphate compound in there. You know, I’m kind of letting my mind run wild, but…

Host: Yeah, sure.

Danny Glavin:… I think, you know, now that we, we know we’re working with pristine samples, if we find something that, that looks to be a little more like a biopolymer, we might, might actually believe it, right…

Host: Right.

Danny Glavin:…because these are, these are clean samples. And so, for me, that’s the big difference, you know, if you find something, you know, like a large peptide or, or, you know, what looks like a fragment of DNA in a meteorite, you’re not going to believe it’s, it’s extraterrestrial. You’re just not, because of the contamination history. And with samples from Bennu, this asteroid that’s pristine, we’re, we’re going to be in, in a different, it’s going to be a different story.

Host: It’ll be a different story because, yeah, because it’s so clean, because if you find evidence for this, it really supports, and this is what you talked about in the very beginning of our discussion here, it supports this theory that — even strong, even more strongly — that life may have been, and at least in some part, delivered to Earth, because as you mentioned, some, some of these things cannot be just created, spontaneously created, on Earth. This is, is that really, am I summarizing that correctly, that it, that it will support even more that life may have come from all around the universe by asteroids crashing on, on Earth’s surface and delivering these, these building blocks of life?

Danny Glavin: Yep, absolutely. I think the, and what I mentioned earlier, the more we’re studying these materials, different meteorite sample return materials, the more we’re learning is that these, these chemicals, these building blocks, seem to be ubiquitous, right, in our solar system; probably in other solar systems too, right? I mean, these building blocks, blocks are everywhere. So that, that’s exciting to me. I mean, I would be, I would be shocked — I mean, I’ll just say it — if we don’t find any interesting organic chemicals in Bennu. We already have some insight from the, the in-situ measurements that were made on the spacecraft — we use a spectroscopy technique — so we’ve already detected hints of organic carbon. So we know there’s organic matter in there to be studied. But what we don’t know is whether the, the building blocks are there yet, and we’ll need to, you know, have these in the lab to determine that. One other thing that’s really interesting about Bennu is it looks different than any meteorite we have in our collection. It’s got these carbon, carbonate veins running through it. So at one point, asteroid Bennu was this hydrothermal, you know, factory. I mean, maybe, maybe it will tell us, you know, about what might have happened on the early Earth in a hydrothermal environment related to prebiotic chemistry. I, I don’t know, but these samples, you know, don’t really look like anything we have in our collection. Of course, you know, we’ll confirm that when they come back, but this could be a very special sample indeed. We’ll just have to wait till they come back to, to know for sure.

Host: You’re getting me really excited, Danny.

Danny Glavin: Good.

Host: There’s a lot, there’s a lot of…

Danny Glavin: You should be.

Host:[Laughter]…yeah. I mean, so, so I mean, I, I’m, I’m sure I’m not the only one thinking this, right, because I don’t know, I don’t know exactly what, from a scientific perspective ,what the whole process looks like. But I’m sure, like, you know, there’s a lot of folks out there that think that this is going to land, we’re going to bring it to a lab and, and point and be like, “yep, life, we have every, everything we need to know,” but I’m sure science takes time, right, so what’s the, what’s the, what, what do you expect will be the process once, once the sample gets back for you to do the proper analysis, to check with your colleagues, to write the papers, to publish the results? I’m sure that’s a very lengthy process.

Danny Glavin: Yeah. I mean, we’re going to, it’s going to take months…

Host: Yeah.

Danny Glavin:…to get through these analyses because, you know, as you said, you know, especially if you find something really unusual, you’re going to have, have to have it double-checked and triple-checked, probably by another lab, maybe using another technique, just to confirm everything. But right now, you know, we’re looking at, in this preliminary examination phase, right, the early, early science, we’re, we’re hoping within six months to have some of these results, you know, published in a journal out to the science community. Of course, we won’t, you know, we won’t know everything about Bennu at that time; like you said, it takes, it’s going to take years, maybe decades to fully understand, you know, what Bennu is trying to tell us. But I think, yeah, within six months after landing there’ll be papers, you know, available for the public to read and, and learn more about Bennu. So yeah, it’ll be, it’ll be pretty intense during those first few months, you know, getting, you know, as many analyses done as we can to put out in that first set of papers, but, you know, we’ve done this before with meteorites, so we, we kind of have a pretty good feel for how long things are going to take.

Host: When you think about, and, and we’ll sort of end with this thought, is when you think about just the, the, what, what it takes to study this — we’re, we’re, we’re pulling from asteroids, we’re figuring out these, you know, the building blocks of life outside that maybe helps us to understand more about Earth — from your perspective, right, a person who has dedicated much of their, of their career to, to this pursuit, what drives you? What, what is, what is your motivating factor that, that makes you want to go and explore and, and you find a, you find like a core benefit to, to searching for life? What is it that, that really drives you?

Danny Glavin: Yeah. I mean, I think it, it goes back to this “are we alone?” question. I mean, it kind of sounds silly, but you know, we’re here, life’s here on Earth, right? Did it develop elsewhere? I mean, I think what we’re learning from the meteorites, the building blocks should have been all over the, the solar system, right? And so, how, how hard is it to go from these prebiotic building block chemicals to something that we consider life, something that can self-replicate a cell; you know, how, how, how, how hard is that transition? I think by exploring places like Mars, right, looking for evidence of life there, which was probably much more Earth-like several billion years ago, may help, you know, answer that question. I think I’m becoming more optimistic that we’ll find something. And I’m, again, I’m talking about, you know, bacterial life here, nothing, nothing real complex…

Host: Like intelligent, or anything, yeah.

Danny Glavin:…yeah, yeah. You know, not looking for aliens on, on Mars or anything. But bacterial life. And, you know, when we discover that or…what does it look like? How similar is it to the Earth, right? Do we use the same set of 20 amino acids? Do we use the same, does it use the same five nucleobases? What does it look like, right? And if it doesn’t, I mean, if we’re finding evidence for life and, and the building blocks are different, I mean, that’s huge. That means that there was an independent origin of life, right, and it happened twice in the same solar system. And I think for me, that’s what, that’s what drives me, you know, trying to figure out how rare life really is here, right? I’d like to think it’s more common, but until we, until we find evidence for life elsewhere, we, we just don’t know.

Host: But those big questions, I think, you, they’re just so exciting. I can see where your passion is for, for this. And, and, and this is truly, as you mentioned, a very, very exciting time. I’m going to have to reach out to you in a couple of years, Danny, to, to, once you get your hands on the samples and, and, and you start going through the processes, I know you’re going to be very busy, but I can’t wait to hear your perspective on once you get the samples and you start going through this, what we have to find and, and what you think about, you know, I hope that level of optimism continues with your research.

Danny Glavin: Yeah. I, one thing I’ll, I’ll kind of leave you with here, Gary, is one thing I’ve learned in this business is that every time we analyze a meteorite or another sample, we’re always surprised, and I’m certain Bennu is going to surprise us. We’re, we’re going to learn some new things that we didn’t expect. And, yeah, that’s, that’s another thing that drives me in this, in this field, is it just, you’re always learning something new. And, yeah, I’d be happy to talk to you when we get results back and, and share the excitement.

Host: That is so exciting. Danny Glavin, thank you so much for coming on Houston We Have a Podcast. Very exciting time. Your passion came through so well. And, and you got me excited, and I hope it was the same for our listeners. Thanks again for coming on.

Danny Galvin: Thanks, Gary.


Host: Hey, thanks for sticking around. Super-exciting to talk to Dr. Danny Glavin today, he was so inspirational in his search for life. I hope you learned something today. And of course, you can check out the latest on his research, and on the OSIRIS-REx mission, at NASA.gov. We’re one of many NASA podcasts across the whole agency. You can check out the full collection of podcasts at NASA.gov/podcasts, including us where our full collection is located, and you can listen to any of our episodes in no particular order. If you want to talk to us, we’re on the Johnson Space Center pages of Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram, and you can use the hashtag #AskNASA on your favorite platform to submit an idea or ask a question for the show, just make sure to mention is for us at Houston We Have a Podcast. This episode was recorded on June 10, 2022. Thanks to Greg Wiseman, Pat Ryan, Heidi Lavelle, Beth Weissinger, Belinda Pulido, and Jaden Jennings. And of course, thanks again to Dr. Danny Glavin for taking the time to come on the show. Give us a rating and feedback on whatever platform you’re listening to us on and tell us what you think of our podcast. We’ll be back next week.