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Donald Trump isn’t the union legend he’s pretending to be

Trump doesn’t care about the specific demands of the striking United Auto Workers members, but he wants their votes. His track record with unions isn’t as simple as he’d like to paint it.

Published by Web Desk



Donald Trump has long made it clear that he sees himself as not just the true voice of the working class, but also the rightful standard-bearer of the union vote. His rally Wednesday night in a Detroit, Michigan suburb just reconfirmed that. “Tell your UAW leadership — no problems with them — but they have to endorse Trump because if they don’t, all they’re doing is committing suicide,” he said. He was talking to a crowd of auto workers, some unionized, but mostly not, at a nonunion manufacturing plant about why he deserves both the union vote and the support of auto workers in general.

This is the crux of Wednesday’s rally: Trump doesn’t care about the specific demands of the striking United Auto Workers members — he wants their votes, and because he says he supports manufacturing jobs and opposes electric vehicle development, that should be enough to back him. But union voters, including in Michigan, have long sided with Democratic candidates — UAW’s leadership itself refused to meet with Trump but joined President Joe Biden 50 miles away a day earlier, when he became the first sitting president to join a picket line.

Trump’s track record with unions isn’t as simple as he’d like to paint it. Though he spent much of the 2016 campaign railing against free trade deals and neoliberal economic policies that contributed to the decline of the American manufacturing sector and the outsourcing of blue-collar jobs, that’s just about the limit of his union-friendly perspective. As president, he sided with capital and managerial interests over labor at nearly every turn, appointing corporate-friendly lawyers to the National Labor Relations Board, supporting right-to-work laws that limited union organizing and dues collections in Republican states, and promising to veto the PRO Act, a bill that would override those state laws and boost labor organizing rights. Even at his rally, he talked up the tax cuts he passed in 2017, without mentioning that they disproportionately benefited corporations and corporate leaders.

Nevertheless, Trump has branded himself as a union champion, claiming that the rank-and-file have flocked to his cause. But a close examination of voting trends over the last few presidential cycles, as well as the changing nature of the labor movement, show that Trump’s standing union voters is mainly a product of his own mythmaking.

Yes, he’s had some success with union voters before — his 2016 presidential victory was buoyed in Midwestern swing states in part by making gains in union households. But union voters aren’t a monolith; they’re a far more diverse group than what Trump (and the nation’s popular conception) would have you believe. And while Trump made gains in 2016, Biden took much of them back in 2020 — suggesting that maybe Trump was never the union whisperer he’s claiming to be.

Democrats have long counted on union support — though 2016 was different

The idea that Trump can make gains among union voters in 2024 has its roots in 2016. That election was defined by two unpopular presidential candidates: in Hillary Clinton, the epitome of an establishment, pro-free trade, and neoliberal politician; and Trump, who pitched himself as a populist outsider who’d renegotiate the nation’s trade deals to save manufacturing jobs.

Much was made about Trump’s appeal to white, working-class voters, and his ability to flip the Midwestern states that made up the so-called Blue Wall that was expected to deliver Clinton the White House. News analyses after the fact explained one key reason: “Donald Trump Got Reagan-Like Support from Union Households,” read one Washington Post headline, while HuffPost declared “It Looks Like Donald Trump Did Really Well With Union Households.”

Those headlines aren’t wrong: Clinton did better among union households than Trump, but it was the smallest margin of victory for a Democrat since 1980, according to exit polls. [First, an aside: There isn’t very good data to track how union voters specifically have voted (believe me, I tried hunting it down), so the best data we can use to understand recent elections is from the exit polls collected by Edison Research for the National Election Pool. They ask respondents if anyone in their household belongs to a union, and track that metric. It’s imperfect, but it’s the best we have.] While Clinton still won the national union household vote (51 percent), Trump posted a two-percentage-point improvement compared to Mitt Romney in 2012 (from 40 to 42 percent). For context: Obama’s margin of victory over Romney was 18 points; Clinton’s was just 9.

But that doesn’t mean Trump posted tremendous national gains. “Trump kind of simply continued a slight slow upward trajectory of Republicans making inroads in the union household that dates back to Bill Clinton’s first race in 1992,” Jake Rosenfeld, a sociology professor at Washington University in St. Louis and labor author, told me. “Roughly speaking in recent elections, Republicans get about 4 in 10 voters in unionized households. That’s down from Ronald Reagan’s successes in 1980 and ’84.”

That trend, of Republicans winning about 40 percent of the labor household vote goes back to 1976, with dips in 1992 and 1996 due to Ross Perot’s third-party candidacy.

Trump’s gains among union household voters, however, didn’t prove sustainable. In 2020, Biden restored the Democratic-union household margin back to double digits, with 56 percent to Trump’s 40 percent.

That rebound suggests something unique happened in 2016: a combination of an appealing Trump message to unionized and nonunionized blue-collar voters in the Midwest, a fumble in the Clinton campaign’s organizing and mobilization in the region, and, most importantly, flaws in Clinton’s candidacy itself, unable to convince voters to ignore her close alignment with her party’s free-trade wing.

The picture gets even more complicated when you zoom in on state-level data. In 2016, Trump cut into Democrats’ union household support significantly across the Midwest. He won a significant majority of union household voters in Ohio: 54 percent to Clinton’s 41 percent according to exit polling. He then held that majority in 2020. It’s a similar story in Pennsylvania, where he made gains in 2016 and held them in 2020.

But in Wisconsin and Michigan, Trump’s 2016 gains were erased in 2020. Biden nearly doubled Clinton’s showing in 2016, winning the union household vote 62 to 37 percent; similarly, in Wisconsin, Biden won the union vote by 19 points, up from the 10 points Clinton won in 2016.

Those differences complicate the question of whether Trump has some unique appeal among union voters, or if 2016 was driven more by the flaws of the Clinton campaign.

White, working-class voters are not the same as union voters, since unions themselves are changing

Aside from his track record, there are two important pieces of context to understand why Trump isn’t likely to inherit the mantle of union hero: Private-sector union membership, the kind he is going after, has been on a decline over the last few decades. At the same time, public and private sector union membership has been diversifying over that same time — making them much less male and white than they have historically been.

Those trends explain why it’s important to not conflate union members, and especially auto union workers, with the category of “white working-class American” that Trump claims to be a champion for, and which media and politicians often use interchangeably with “union worker,” Rosenfeld told me. As private sector unionization rates have declined (that rate sits at a historic low of 6 percent of workers), including in manufacturing and industrial occupations, public sector unionization rates, among school teachers and police officers for example, have remained higher (at about 33 percent nationally). And both sectors are much more female and more Black and Latino than in previous decades.

“In a lot of politicians’ minds, when they talk about the importance of unions, they’re conjuring up images of a UAW auto worker. But that’s just not who your typical union household is, and it’s certainly not who your typical union member is today,” Rosenfeld said. “Today, it’s much more likely that your union household is comprised of a public school teacher than it is an auto worker or manufacturing worker.”

He told me that this moment, with the UAW strike, shows the paradox of how much attention is given to a shrinking subset of voters. “Overall, auto union membership today is something like 16 percent … and that contrasts with about 60 percent back in the early to mid-1980s,” he said. That same dynamic applies to Michigan, as well, where private manufacturing jobs used to be an anchor of the labor movement. While about 4 in 10 manufacturing workers belonged to unions in the 1980s, less than 20 percent do so now. Even the union at the center of this week’s dueling Michigan visits isn’t as monolithic as it used to be, or as Trump thinks of it. Four in 10 UAW members work outside the automotive industry, and that growing segment is now being fueled by unionizing researchers, university workers, and other academic student workers.

The growing diversity in profession, gender, and race among union members is another defining feature of the modern labor movement, one that experts told me has benefitted Democrats and poses a challenge to Trump and Republican candidates.

“If you took the union movement of 1950, and kept it the same — it was still mostly construction, industrial, white men — it would probably be a pretty conservative movement today,” Paul Frymer, a political scientist focused on labor and political movements at Princeton University, told me. “A lot of what has contributed to the longevity of the Democratic Party with it is the shift of demographics, both race and gender, and the shift to the public sector and the service industry.” Frymer and his colleagues have also found that increasing diversity among public and private sector unions also has effects on racial animosity: that class solidarity can help white people feel less racial resentment against nonwhite counterparts — and aligns with traditional Democratic messaging.

Why Biden and Trump are headed for a union showdown

So why are Biden and Trump set to duel over a shrinking pool of voters that are still more likely to vote for Democrats — and simply don’t have the same numbers they did in their heyday?

It hasn’t always been this way, Frymer told me. “2023 is a different moment. There is competition for the labor vote. When was the last time that happened? Trump doing this is going to push Democrats to do the same, and getting Biden to march in a protest,” he said. “There hasn’t been a Democratic president who really saw themselves as a union supporter since maybe Truman. The union movement was taken for granted a lot in the Democratic Party. They were an important part of the party, but they weren’t the group that presidents and senators were worried about.”

The bipartisan desire for union support is amplified by how important small margins are in battleground states, where labor voters are still crucial in delivering victory to Democrats — or defecting in numbers large enough to boost a Republican. As Michael Baharaeen at The Liberal Patriot has analyzed, shoring up union household support in Michigan, Pennsylvania, and Wisconsin offers Democrats a clear pathway to hold those states in 2024 — and an opening for Trump to neutralize a Democratic advantage.

The changing partisan affiliation of union members also creates ripe ground for a contest: Polling data aggregated and analyzed by Gallup for Vox over the last 20 years show that though Democrats still hold an edge (31 percent of members) in the number of union members who identify as Democrats, Republicans have seen an increase in affiliation since Trump’s election (27 percent today, compared to 20 percent during the 2016 election). More union members identify as independents — and when asked to which party they lean, Democrats still hold an advantage, though it has shrunk.

Adding to this moment is the historically high popular support for organized labor among Americans nationally — nearly 7 in 10 Americans approve of labor unions, according to Gallup’s most recent surveys, a number not seen since 1960. That offers ripe ground for candidates of both parties to campaign as pro-labor, even if, in the case of Trump, that doesn’t mean passing legislation or enacting policies to materially help labor unions specifically.

The specifics of Trump’s speech Wednesday night lend this theory more credence. Trump allies and much of the political press have characterized the Michigan visit as an attempt to persuade working class and union voters, even though the address was hosted at a nonunionized facility, to a crowd of mostly nonunion or former union manufacturing workers. An anti-free trade, anti-electric vehicle, and nominally pro-worker speech seems more like an attempt to use the aesthetics of the traditional labor movement than a serious attempt to help union workers.

It’s disingenuous of Trump to pretend to be a union champion, but his success in selling that image — or Democrats’ success in dispelling it — is likely to have a significant bearing on who wins the next election.

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The US power grid quietly survived its most brutal summer yet

Despite record power demand, the grid largely avoided blackouts. Don’t take this for granted.

Published by Web Desk



With little acknowledgment and no applause, the power grid across the continental United States this summer quietly pulled off what may have been its most impressive feat ever.

On July 27, the US grid served nearly 15 million megawatt-hours of electricity across the lower 48 states, about 1.6 times the electricity produced by every nuclear power plant in the world on a given day. It kept lights, fans, and air conditioners running in every home, office, factory, school, hospital, and store on one of the hottest days ever. For comparison, the average daily electricity use in 2022 across the whole country was roughly 11 million MWh. At 6 pm ET, US energy demand reached an all-time high hourly peak of 741,815 MWh.

Graph of power demand in the US over summer 2023.
Power demand in the US reached a record high in July this year.
Energy Information Administration

It’s even more remarkable when you consider the context: July 27 was just the Mount Everest in a month of Himalayan demand peaks. July 2023 was the hottest month on the planet since at least 1880, possibly the hottest in 100,000 years. The US, being a country on Earth, burst through numerous temperature records. In Death Valley, California, temperatures reached 127.7 degrees Fahrenheit.

Graph of hourly power demand in July 2023.
High temperatures pushed power demand up every day in July, reaching a record peak on July 27.
Energy Information Administration

Weeks of relentless heat all day and even through the night sent millions of Americans indoors where they devoured electrons as they desperately tried to cool off.

“It really has been pushing the grid into uncharted territory with these record levels of demand,” said Mark Olson, manager for reliability assessments at the North American Electric Reliability Corporation (NERC), a power industry nonprofit that works to keep the power system running smoothly.

When temperatures reach extremes, in both hot and cold directions, it creates a ravenous appetite for energy. “It really is the determining factor for what kind of stress the grid was placed under,” Olson added. “And so we saw, certainly, this summer, many areas were put under unprecedented levels of stress.”

At the same time, the scalding weather evaporated some of the electricity supply as generators struggled to cool off, transmission lines moved less power, and transformers faced overheating risks. And this all happened on a power grid that isn’t getting any younger. More than 70 percent of transmission lines are more than 25 years old, and aging hardware has raised reliability worries for years, even outside of extreme weather.

NERC warned in May that this combination of factors would put most of the US at an elevated risk of blackouts over the summer. “The assessment finds that, while resources are adequate for normal summer peak demand, if summer temperatures spike, [grid operators] may face supply shortages during higher demand levels,” according to NERC’s May outlook.

Prolonged power outages during this summer’s heat waves would have been devastating. Global average temperatures are rising due to climate change from burning fossil fuels, increasing the frequency, duration, and severity of heat waves. During such high temperatures, cooling is not a luxury but a necessity for survival. A June heat wave in India with temperatures reaching 113°F led to power outages, forcing hospitals to go without air conditioning and fans. The heat killed close to 170 people. The 2021 heat wave in the Pacific Northwest contributed to 159 deaths and led to rolling blackouts.

An outage during a future heat wave would be even worse. A study published earlier this year in the journal Environmental Science and Technology examined a blackout scenario in Phoenix, Arizona, during a major heat wave. The researchers estimated that this scenario would kill close to 13,000 residents and require nearly 800,000 people to seek emergency medical care.

A National Powerline crew works during a heat wave in Phoenix, Arizona, US, on Thursday, July 20, 2023
Crews in cities like Phoenix, Arizona worked to keep power flowing through the hottest times of year.
Caitlin O’Hara/Bloomberg via Getty Images

Fortunately, nothing that dire happened in the US this year. Hundreds of thousands of utility customers in places like Texas, Oklahoma, and Louisiana did lose power for several days due to damage from intense storms, leaving them without cooling as high temperatures set in over the summer. But for the most part, the heat itself did not lead to major blackouts, despite the intense strain on the grid.

Is this a victory? Or is it a near-miss catastrophe?

“Sure. It’s great that there have not been outages,” said Doug Lewin, a power grid analyst and author of the Texas Energy and Power Newsletter. “They landed the plane, but there’s warning lights all over the place. You wouldn’t want to take that plane into the air again unless you actually fixed it up.”

Grid operators and utilities did anticipate that this summer would be a scorcher and took some steps to prepare. But while the lights stayed on, the situation still turned dicey as power companies issued emergency energy conservation alerts to their customers.

Forecasters now warn that next year will be even hotter. And while the US is heading into cooler autumn weather, the power grid in parts of the country remains in a precarious state as heating needs bring new pressures. The tests are only getting harder. “As climate scientists are quick to point out, it’s not going to get better,” Lewin said. “We really have to get prepared for summers that are worse than this one.”

The higher stakes question is whether the lessons from this year will help the power network better handle the next one. That the US power system withstood its highest demand period ever is a feat of engineering and planning, but also a matter of luck. It’s not something anyone can afford to take for granted.

How the US power grid survived its toughest challenge yet

Though we talk about “the grid” as a monstrous monolithic machine, it’s actually a mosaic of different energy systems. There are three major power grids across the continental US broken down further into regional transmission operators who route electrons mobilized by moving air, rushing water, photons from the sun, fragments of atoms, and the residues of lives lived millions of years ago.

Which makes it all the more remarkable that in this huge, complicated structure, very little buckled under the record-breaking temperatures this year.

A big reason was that grid operators anticipated that blackout risks would be unusually high this year. NERC’s summer reliability assessment looked at how much power could be put on the grid through June, July, and August, accounting for energy supplies, maintenance downtime, and unexpected shutdown scenarios. They also forecasted what kinds of weather conditions would materialize in the warm months, as well as the impacts of long-running problems like drought.

“It’s not a prediction of what will happen, but it is an analysis of conditions that could happen, and then serves as a warning to industry and stakeholders,” Olson said. “When we looked at more severe scenarios like extreme demand levels or low resource conditions like what happens when gas-fired generators are forced offline for outages or low-wind scenarios, we found more parts of the grid geographically were at risk than in past summers.”

Of course, this summer was not a normal one. Signs of an exceptionally hot season, like a brewing El Niño weather pattern in the Pacific Ocean, also materialized early.

The warnings gave grid operators time to prepare. They were able to refine their energy usage forecasts, procure extra electricity generation, and model expected wind and solar power output. In the runup to heat waves, operators also ensured that power plants rescheduled any planned outages and dispatchable backup power was ready. They also reached agreements with neighboring power networks to purchase power in case there were any shortfalls.

US Military Honor Guard marches past solar panels for a ribbon-cutting ceremony for an energy resilience project at the Joint Forces Training Base (JFTB) in Los Alamitos, California, on August 11, 2023.
New installations of renewable energy helped bolster power supplies as demand reached record highs.
Frederic J. Brown/AFP via Getty Images

Another factor was the oodles of new cheap renewable energy added to the grid. Last year, renewable sources like wind and solar power made up 74 percent of new utility-scale generating capacity in the US. Solar is poised to make up more than half of new power capacity this year, more than 29 gigawatts. The US power grid as a whole has about 1,250 GW of generating capacity. Solar and wind power helped cushion the blow of intense heat waves during the hottest times of day in many parts of the country.

On the other side of the equation, transmission operators and power utilities leaned on their customers too. Instead of just pumping more electrons into power lines, they created incentives in some markets for offices, factories, and homes to dial down their power use during challenging times. This is a tool called demand response, and it’s becoming a more important way to balance energy needs. During especially dire times, people also responded to emergency alerts to limit power usage by turning down unnecessary appliances.

The US power system thus managed to stay on its feet in the scorching heat, but it was getting woozy and uncomfortably close to blacking out. “I think we’ve seen a number of instances this summer of conclusive evidence that we’re operating near our limits,” Olson said.

And then there’s Texas, America’s postcard from the future

The Lone Star State deserves its own mention because more than 90 percent of its demand is met with its internal grid that has few connections to outside states, effectively turning Texas into an island. This network, powered by more than 11,000 generators, is run by the nonprofit Electric Reliability Council of Texas, or ERCOT.

While Texas baked in the same heat as much of the rest of the country, it couldn’t count on its neighbors for help. ERCOT had to issue several emergency appeals to customers asking them to cut back on power use to protect the grid, including earlier this month.

Texas is the largest oil and gas producer in the US. It’s also the state with the most wind energy, and this year, it’s on track to add more solar than any other state, nearly double what California is installing. In fact, wind and sunlight patterns in Texas complement each other exceptionally well, smoothing out variability when the wind slows or when clouds pass overhead. In 2022, Texas generated more than 40 percent of its electricity from zero-emissions sources: nuclear, wind, and solar.

It’s odd then that a state with so much energy still ended up scrounging for power and asking customers to step up. These alerts and appeals began to frustrate Texans. “ERCOT’s popularity is not super high, so when they ask people to reduce, I see this all over Facebook and Twitter online, people saying, ‘No, like, I’m making it colder in my house. You guys figure this out,’” Lewin said. “People get angry.”

Texas flag in front of electrical transmission towers.
ERCOT, the Texas power grid operator, issued several energy conservation alerts this year as temperatures reached record highs.
Brandon Bell/Getty Images

Part of the reason that Texas sometimes struggles to make enough electricity is that it has a freewheeling power market with fewer interventions from regulators than those in other states. The priority is to sell electricity in real time at the lowest possible cost, with little backup margin, although that’s starting to change. Spurred by the 2021 blackout in Texas from Winter Storm Uri that cut off power to 4 million customers and killed at least 246 people, ERCOT implemented rules to encourage more reserve power on its grid.

Still, there is a lot of untapped potential for increasing reliability in Texas and in much of the rest of the country. According to Lewin, one of the biggest opportunities is mandating more energy efficiency. “Not just conservation, not just asking people to sweat in their homes, but actually replace old HVACs, put in more insulation,” Lewin said. “All of that would make the grid more reliable.”

Though the Texas grid is unique, many other parts of the country will likely follow its trends: more extreme heat, growing populations, rising energy demand, fast-blossoming renewables. Texas is also leading in new clean technologies like carbon capture and hydrogen production that, while they do have massive energy requirements, can help address climate change. Energy may be abundant in Texas, but it’s still a challenge to get it where it needs to go. “I often refer to ERCOT as kind of a postcard from the future,” Lewin said.

The power grid has more obstacles ahead this year

Even with temperatures now dropping, there are still challenges for the power grid. Late-season heat waves remain a possibility in states like California and could increase the chances of a blackout like they did last year.

Electricity production is also likely to face constraints in the coming months. Shorter days mean less solar power is available. Many utilities also schedule repairs and upgrades for power plants in the winter. Most power plants in the US require water for cooling and for making steam to spin their turbines, but huge swaths of the country are still facing severe drought conditions. That could impair electricity production.

Map of US power plants facing drought conditions.
Water is essential for thermal power plants. Many plants in the Great Plains and the South are facing severe drought conditions.
National Integrated Drought Information System

Meanwhile, electricity use is growing during the winter as more electric cars, water heaters, stoves, and furnaces plug in. “As electrification is taking hold, we’re seeing those winter peak demands increasing,” Olson said. El Niño is likely to drive a milder winter in the US than is typical, but a sudden cold snap could still cause outages.

The extreme heat this year also exposed flaws in the conventional wisdom around grid reliability, namely that coal, oil, and gas are dependable stalwarts and that wind and solar are too mercurial to be useful. Fossil fuel infrastructure experienced equipment failures amid the high temperatures and extreme heat impaired both conventional and renewable generators.

“The idea that we need more coal and gas to supplement renewables I think is being shown to be a myth that is being propagated by certain fossil fuel interests and their political allies,” said Joshua Basseches, an assistant professor of public policy and environmental studies at Tulane University. “I think it’s starting to change, but it has a long way to go.”

2023’s super-hot summer also raised the salience of scrutinizing decisions about the future of the power grid and the people who make them. “Transmission organizations and independent system operators have an accountability problem,” Basseches said. The people who decide where to build power lines, what sources should provide electricity, what energy storage mechanisms are necessary, and how to distribute the costs are overseen by the federal government, but they aren’t elected by the people most directly affected by their choices.

“That’s why you hear people calling for ‘energy democracy,’ this idea that there should be more voices at the table,” Basseches said.

It’s critical to plan now for the next time temperatures reach the far ends of the thermometer. The decisions made now will shape whether we can stay comfortable in the next chill or scorcher, or whether we’ll be left in the dark.

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A NASA asteroid sample just landed on Earth. It holds clues about the origins of life.

The OSIRIS-REx spacecraft arrived in Utah Sunday, carrying material from the asteroid Bennu — and the dawn of the solar system.

Published by Web Desk



A capsule bearing soil from an asteroid located 200 million miles from Earth landed in Utah at 8:52 am Mountain time Sunday, bringing with it — scientists hope — information about the origin of life.

The NASA spacecraft OSIRIS-REx, which stands for Origins, Spectral Interpretation, Resource Identification, Security-Regolith Explorer, delivered a sample of material from the asteroid Bennu. The space rock is estimated to be around 4.5 billion years old — meaning it formed around the same time as the solar system and likely holds pre-solar material, as well as amino acids, the building blocks of life.

Seven years after its initial launch, OSIRIS-REx deposited the capsule of uncontaminated material from Bennu to the Department of Defense’s Utah Test and Training Range, about 80 miles from Salt Lake City, before heading off on another mission, this time to the near-Earth asteroid Apophis.

What Bennu can tell us about some of life’s biggest questions

After the sample landed, the OSIRIS-REx team connected it to a 100-foot cable dangling from a helicopter for transport to a temporary clean room free from contaminants in the Earth’s atmosphere, where it will be preserved with nitrogen and then transported to Johnson Space Center in Houston.

Parts of the sample will then be shipped to other research labs, and some will also be preserved for future generations of scientists to study — similar to how today’s researchers still study samples of material from the moon brought back decades ago on Apollo 11, humanity’s first moon landing.

Person wearing a face mask examines a capsule that is blanketed and covered in a net
A recovery team member examines the capsule containing the Bennu sample before it is taken to a temporary clean room.
Rick Bowmer/Associated Press

Researchers believe that material from asteroids like Bennu deposited compounds such as amino acids on Earth before life existed on this planet, Philipp Heck, senior director of research and curator of meteoritics and polar studies at Chicago’s Field Museum, told Vox. “We hope the Bennu samples will help us address the question, ‘Which building blocks were delivered by meteorites?’”

Even further back, Bennu could tell scientists about how planets, including Earth, formed in the first place. “Asteroids are [leftover] rocky material from the time of the solar system formation. They are the initial bricks that built the planets,” Fred Jourdan, a planetary scientist at Curtin University in Perth, Australia, told in July.

The asteroid sample — called a regolith — is the first ever brought back to Earth by a US team. Japan’s space agency led a mission that returned a sample from the asteroid Ryugu in 2020, which yielded important scientific information but was fairly small, limiting its utility. The Bennu sample is between 5.26 and 12.34 ounces (149 to 350 grams), scientists estimated from monitoring the collecting mechanism aboard the spacecraft.

That will be enough not only for today’s cosmochemists to study the makeup of Bennu, but also for scientists for years and even decades to come, who will be “able to address science questions that we cannot even ask today,” Heck said. “That’s really the power of sample return.”

Bennu is made from many of the same materials as meteorites that occasionally slam into Earth — which scientists find important to study, too, because they can help us understand what existed at the dawn of the solar system. But in those natural experiments, it’s difficult to distinguish what was already present in the meteorites’ material from what was deposited after they entered Earth’s atmosphere and biosphere, Heck explained. To avoid this problem, the Bennu sample was gathered directly from the asteroid and carefully sealed to avoid alteration by outside materials, even once it arrived on Earth.

Bennu was chosen for the OSIRIS-REx project because of its composition — which scientists could determine from observing the asteroid from a distance, as well as studies of similar space rocks — but also because it’s relatively close to Earth. “Every six years, Earth overtakes Bennu … so it’s a good opportunity to fly to Bennu with a reasonable investment in propulsion,” Heck said. “You don’t want to go to an asteroid that is too far away, then come back — it just costs so much more money to have a spacecraft that can do that.”

Because it’s a near-Earth asteroid, there is also “non-zero probability” that Bennu could hit Earth, Heck said, although that wouldn’t happen this century. “That was another motivation, to get to know the properties and the build-up of Bennu in case something like Bennu [could] at some point be on a collision course with Earth,” he told Vox. “We would have a better way to figure out how to deflect it, if we know what it’s made of.”

Heck expects that material from the sample will arrive to his research team in Chicago for study later this year. “Our labs are ready for it,” he said.

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