- NASA’s OSIRIS-REx capsule successfully delivers the largest asteroid sample in history.
- Bennu’s composition offers insights into the early solar system and the origins of life.
- The capsule’s safe landing marks a significant achievement in space exploration.
- The sample will be distributed to scientists worldwide for analysis.
- OSIRIS-REx’s next mission destination is the near-Earth asteroid Apophis.
On the 24th of September, a NASA spacecraft, resembling a gumdrop, bearing the most substantial soil sample ever gathered from the surface of an asteroid, streaked through Earth’s atmosphere. Eventually, it gracefully parachuted into the vast Utah desert, bestowing this celestial specimen upon eager scientists.
This capsule, with its unique shape, was released from the robotic vessel OSIRIS-REx as the mothership sailed within a proximity of 67,000 miles (approximately 107,826 kilometers) from Earth just hours prior. Its final destination was a carefully designated landing zone located to the west of Salt Lake City, nestled within the expansive Utah Test and Training Range, overseen by the U.S. military.
The dramatic descent and landing, broadcasted via a NASA livestream, marked the culmination of a collaborative six-year mission between the U.S. space agency and the University of Arizona. It signified the retrieval of only the third asteroid sample, notably the most substantial to date, ever transported back to Earth for comprehensive analysis.
This achievement followed in the footsteps of two similar missions executed by Japan’s space agency, which occurred in 2010 and 2020.
Upon landing, the capsule assumed a nose-down position on the sandy terrain of the Utah desert. A vibrant red-and-white parachute, which had expertly slowed its high-velocity descent, lay just a few feet away after successfully detaching.
For a brief moment, uncertainty lingered regarding the deployment of a preliminary chute. However, the main chute gracefully unfurled as intended, guiding the capsule to a gentle and nearly flawless touchdown.
Dante Lauretta, a scientist hailing from the University of Arizona who had been engaged in this project since its inception, was present in a helicopter to witness the descent. He emotionally shared, “We heard ‘main chute detected,’ and I literally broke into tears.” Meanwhile, Tim Prizer, an engineer from Lockheed Martin who contributed to the project, commented, “we touched down as soft as a dove.”
The OSIRIS-REx spacecraft had collected this remarkable specimen three years prior from Bennu, a relatively diminutive, yet carbon-rich asteroid, first identified in 1999. Bennu is categorized as a “near-Earth object” due to its recurring proximity to our planet every six years, although the likelihood of an impact remains remote.
Bennu’s composition resembles a loose assemblage of rocks, akin to a rubble pile, with dimensions measuring a mere 500 meters (equivalent to 547 yards) across. While this makes it wider than the height of the Empire State Building, it pales in comparison to the colossal Chicxulub asteroid, which struck Earth some 66 million years ago, leading to the extinction of the dinosaurs.
Like other asteroids, Bennu serves as a relic of the early solar system. Given that its current chemical and mineralogical makeup has remained virtually unaltered since its formation approximately 4.5 billion years ago, it holds invaluable insights into the origins and evolution of rocky planets like our own, Earth.
Additionally, there exists the possibility that Bennu houses organic molecules akin to those vital for the emergence of microbial life.
Three years ago, the Japanese Hayabusa2 mission returned samples from Ryugu, another near-Earth asteroid. These samples were found to contain two organic compounds, lending support to the theory that celestial bodies, such as comets, asteroids, and meteorites, which bombarded early Earth, delivered the foundational ingredients for life.
The OSIRIS-REx mission commenced in September 2016, reaching Bennu in 2018, after nearly two years spent in orbit around the asteroid. In October 2020, it ventured close enough to utilize its robotic arm to collect a sample of the asteroid’s loose surface material.
Following its departure from Bennu in May 2021, the spacecraft embarked on a lengthy 1.2 billion-mile (approximately 1.9 billion-kilometer) journey back to Earth, which included two orbits around the sun.
As it re-entered Earth’s atmosphere, approximately 13 minutes before landing, the capsule blazed a fiery trail, its heat shield enduring temperatures reaching an astonishing 5,000 degrees Fahrenheit (approximately 2,800 degrees Celsius).
The Bennu sample, estimated to weigh 250 grams (equivalent to 8.8 ounces), greatly surpasses the 5 grams returned from Ryugu in 2020 and the minuscule specimen delivered from asteroid Itokawa in 2010.
A dedicated team of scientists and technicians stood ready to retrieve the capsule and ensure the sample remained uncontaminated by terrestrial elements.
The somber-hued capsule, along with its precious contents, embarked on a helicopter journey to a meticulously maintained “clean room” situated within the Utah test range. Subsequently, it will be transported via military aircraft to NASA’s Johnson Space Center in Houston.
Here, on Tuesday, the canister will be unsealed, and the samples will be divided into smaller portions for distribution to approximately 200 scientists across 60 laboratories worldwide.
Meanwhile, the primary section of the OSIRIS-REx spacecraft is poised to continue its exploratory mission, with Apophis, another near-Earth asteroid, as its next destination.