After seven years in space, a small spacecraft carrying samples from the asteroid Bennu landed in the Utah desert in late September. After carefully crafted procedures to prevent asteroid dust and rocks from contaminating life on Earth, the samples were transferred to a clean room at the Johnson Space Center in Houston two weeks ago.

Since then, scientists have examined some of the material collected outside the main container to get some initial conclusions. They have released some of their first data.

The analysis showed that the soil from Bennu contains as much as 10% water, as well as about 5-10% carbon.

The discovery of organic matter could allow scientists to answer questions about how terrestrial planets such as Earth and Mars formed.

It is likely that billions of years ago, asteroids like this one delivered the vast majority of the water that is now found in Earth’s oceans, lakes, and rivers.

By assembling clues from asteroid dust — both its water and organic molecules — scientists believe they can better understand how Earth went from a deserted mudball to a world teeming with life today.

“This is incredible material,” said Daniel Glavin, the mission’s co-investigator. “It’s full of organic. If we’re looking for biologically important organic molecules, we’ve picked the right asteroid and returned the right sample. It’s an astrobiologist’s dream.”

Commentary