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Some of the answers to how life began on Earth may be sitting on the surface of an asteroid circling in our backyard.

The asteroid, known as RQ36, is no ordinary rock. Scientists believe it is covered in organic materials and relatively unchanged since its formation in the early days of the solar system.

That's the primary driver behind OSIRIS-Rex, an asteroid sample return mission that is one of three robotic space expeditions vying for NASA funds.

If selected, the spacecraft would fly to RQ36, survey it extensively, then ease down to the asteroid's surface to collect four tablespoons worth of real estate to return to Earth.


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"We have many meteorites, but not that many organic-rich ones, and we have nothing that's pristine, uncontaminated by the Earth," said Michael Drake, director of the University of Arizona's Lunar and Planetary Laboratory and the lead scientist of the OSIRIS-REx team.

Scientists have no idea if RQ36 contains one or dozens of amino acids, or whether any of its organic molecules are structured with the same chirality, or symmetry, as amino acids on Earth.

"There is a tiny bias in the galaxy toward left-handed structures. Whether that's something that characterizes all living things, or whether it's an accident, nobody knows," Drake told Discovery News.

Whatever chirality RQ36 organics may show "would be very, very interesting," he added.

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