A historic mission
NASA’s OSIRIS-REx spacecraft has successfully returned to Earth with a sample of asteroid Bennu, a carbon-rich rock that may hold clues to the origin of life and the formation of the solar system. The sample capsule, containing at least 60 grams of dust and pebbles from the asteroid, landed in the Utah desert on Sunday, September 24, 2023, after a seven-year journey that spanned more than 4 billion miles.
The mission, which began in 2016, was the first for NASA to collect and return an asteroid sample, and only the second in history after Japan’s Hayabusa missions. Scientists hope that by analyzing the pristine material from Bennu, they can learn more about the history and evolution of the solar system, as well as the potential for asteroid impacts on Earth.
A daring maneuver
The sample capsule was released by the OSIRIS-REx spacecraft four hours before landing, from an altitude of 63,000 miles above Earth. The capsule then plunged through the atmosphere at a speed of more than 27,000 miles per hour, enduring temperatures of up to 5,000 degrees Fahrenheit. Two parachutes deployed to slow down the capsule, which landed safely on a remote expanse of military land in Utah.
The recovery team, consisting of NASA and U.S. Air Force personnel, located the capsule using helicopters and radio signals. They then transported it to a temporary clean room, where they opened it and confirmed that the sample was intact. The capsule will be flown to NASA’s Johnson Space Center in Houston on Monday, where it will be stored and analyzed in a new laboratory.
A scientific treasure
The sample from Bennu is expected to be the largest and most diverse ever returned from an asteroid. Bennu is an ancient and primitive asteroid, dating back to the early stages of the solar system, about 4.5 billion years ago. It is rich in carbon, which is a key element for life, and may contain organic molecules, water, and minerals that could shed light on how planets and life emerged.
The sample also represents a valuable resource for planetary defense, as Bennu is one of the most potentially hazardous asteroids known, with a 1 in 2,700 chance of impacting Earth in the late 22nd century. By studying the sample, scientists can better understand the physical and chemical properties of Bennu, as well as its orbit and trajectory, which could help devise strategies to prevent or mitigate a future collision.
A new adventure
While the sample capsule has completed its mission, the OSIRIS-REx spacecraft is not done yet. It still has enough fuel and resources to continue exploring the solar system, and NASA has already selected a new target for it: a small asteroid named 1999 RQ36, which is similar to Bennu in size and composition. The spacecraft will fly by the asteroid in 2029, and perform a series of scientific observations and measurements.
The OSIRIS-REx mission is part of NASA’s New Frontiers program, which aims to explore the solar system with innovative and cost-effective missions. The program also includes the Juno mission to Jupiter, the New Horizons mission to Pluto and beyond, and the upcoming Dragonfly mission to Saturn’s moon Titan.