The climactic end of a seven-year voyage comes to an end when a NASA capsule landed in the Utah desert, carrying to Earth the largest asteroid samples ever collected. Scientists have high hopes for the sample, saying it will provide a better understanding of the formation of our solar system and how Earth became habitable.
The Osiris-Rex Mission: Collecting Asteroid Bennu’s Secrets
Four years after its 2016 launch, the Osiris-Rex probe landed on the asteroid Bennu and collected roughly nine ounces (250 grams) of dust from its rocky surface. Even that small amount, NASA says, should “help us better understand the types of asteroids that could threaten Earth” and cast light “on the earliest history of our solar system.” NASA Administrator Bill Nelson said, this is going to be the biggest sample we’ve brought back since the Apollo moon rocks” were returned to Earth.
A Precious Cargo: Safeguarding the Sample
As the tire-sized capsule touches down in Utah, a team in protective masks and gloves placed it in a net to be airlifted by helicopter to a temporary “clean room” nearby. NASA wants this done as quickly and carefully as possible to avoid any contamination of the sample with desert sands, skewing test results. Thereafter, this sample was flown by plane to NASA’s Johnson Space Center in Houston, Texas. There, the box will be opened in another “clean room” — the beginning of a days-long process. NASA plans to announce its first results at a news conference on October 11.
Sharing the Wealth of Knowledge: International Collaboration
Most of the sample will be conserved for study by future generations. Roughly one-fourth of it will be immediately used in experiments, and a small amount will be sent to Japan and Canada, partners in the mission. Japan had earlier given NASA a few grains from the asteroid Ryugu, after bringing 0.2 ounces of dust to Earth in 2020 during the Hayabusa-2 mission. Ten years before, it had brought back a microscopic quantity from another asteroid. But the sample from Bennu is much larger, allowing for significantly more testing.
Earth’s Origin Story: Unveiling the Secrets of Bennu
Asteroids are composed of the original materials of the solar system, dating to some 4.5 billion years ago, and have remained relatively intact. They can give us clues about how the solar system formed and evolved. “It’s our own origin story.” By striking Earth’s surface, we do believe asteroids and comets delivered organic material, potentially water, that helped life flourish here on Earth said Osiris-Rex program executive Melissa Morris
Scientists believe Bennu, which is 1,640 feet in diameter, is rich in carbon — a building block of life on Earth — and contains water molecules locked in minerals. Bennu had surprised scientists in 2020 when the probe, during the few seconds of contact with the asteroid’s surface, had sunk into the soil, revealing an unexpectedly low density, sort of like a children’s pool filled with plastic balls. Understanding its composition could come in handy in the — distant — future.
Key takeaways for competitive examination
- NASA Administrator: Bill Nelson