NASA’s OSIRIS-REx spacecraft has successfully delivered a sample of asteroid Bennu to Earth, marking the first time that the United States has returned an asteroid sample to our planet. The sample capsule parachuted down into the Utah desert on Sept. 24, 2023, after a seven-year journey in space.
A Pristine Piece of the Solar System
The sample collected by OSIRIS-REx contains about 250 grams of rocks and dust from the surface of Bennu, a near-Earth asteroid that is about 200 million miles away from Earth. Bennu is one of the oldest and most primitive objects in the solar system, dating back to the formation of the sun and planets about 4.5 billion years ago. Scientists hope that by studying the sample, they can learn more about the origin and evolution of the solar system, as well as the potential for life on other worlds.
The sample is also valuable because it is pristine, meaning it has not been contaminated by Earth’s atmosphere or other sources. To ensure the sample’s integrity, the OSIRIS-REx team took extreme measures to protect it from heat, vibrations, and earthly contaminants. The sample capsule was sealed inside a protective shell that shielded it from the intense heat of re-entry into Earth’s atmosphere. The capsule also had a radio beacon and a parachute to help locate and recover it in the Utah desert. The recovery team used helicopters to transport the capsule to a temporary clean room, where they inspected it and prepared it for shipment to NASA’s Johnson Space Center in Houston.
A Historic Achievement for NASA and Humanity
The OSIRIS-REx mission is a historic achievement for NASA and humanity, as it is the first U.S. mission to return an asteroid sample to Earth. The only other country that has accomplished this feat is Japan, which has returned samples from two different asteroids in the past. The OSIRIS-REx mission also set several records, such as the smallest planetary body ever orbited by a spacecraft, the largest sample collected from an extraterrestrial body since the Apollo era, and the longest duration of a sample return mission.
The OSIRIS-REx mission was launched on Sept. 8, 2016, from Cape Canaveral, Florida. It arrived at Bennu on Dec. 3, 2018, and spent two years surveying and mapping the asteroid. On Oct. 20, 2020, the spacecraft performed a daring maneuver called “Touch-And-Go” (TAG), in which it briefly touched the surface of Bennu and collected a sample using a robotic arm. The spacecraft then stowed the sample inside the capsule and departed from Bennu on May 10, 2021. After a flyby of Earth, the spacecraft released the sample capsule on Sept. 24, 2023, and continued its journey in space for possible future missions.
A Treasure Trove for Scientific Discovery
The sample returned by OSIRIS-REx is a treasure trove for scientific discovery, as it contains material that has not been altered by the processes that shape planets. By analyzing the sample, scientists can gain insights into the chemistry, mineralogy, and organic matter of the early solar system, as well as the history and dynamics of Bennu and other asteroids. The sample can also help scientists understand the role of asteroids in delivering water and organic molecules to Earth and other planets, which may have implications for the origin of life.
The sample will be unpacked and processed at a new lab built for the material at NASA’s Johnson Space Center in Houston. The lab is equipped with glove boxes that allow scientists to handle the sample in a controlled environment. The OSIRIS-REx science team will receive up to a quarter of the sample for analysis, and the rest will be curated for other scientists to study, now and in future generations. The sample will also be shared with international partners, such as Japan, Canada, France, Germany, Italy, and the United Kingdom, who contributed to the mission.
The OSIRIS-REx mission is a testament to the power of human curiosity and exploration, as well as the collaboration and innovation of NASA and its partners. The mission has not only returned a priceless piece of the solar system, but also inspired millions of people around the world with its scientific and technological achievements.