NASA is in the final stages of its preparations for the upcoming landing of an asteroid sample on Earth, expected on September 24.
The agency’s OSIRIS-REx mission recently conducted a significant test by retrieving a mock capsule that had fallen in the Utah Test and Training Range, near Salt Lake City.
This test was crucial for ensuring the readiness of the team to handle the actual sample capsule, containing approximately 8.8 ounces (250 grams) of material from the near-Earth asteroid Bennu.
The OSIRIS-REx mission, launched in September 2016, aims to study and collect samples from the asteroid Bennu, which poses a potential threat due to its size of about 1,650 feet (500 meters) wide. After arriving at Bennu in December 2018 and conducting detailed observations, the spacecraft successfully gathered a sample in October 2020. The unexpected softness of Bennu’s surface allowed for a substantial amount of material to be collected.
Dante Lauretta, the principal investigator of OSIRIS-REx, likened the asteroid’s surface to that of a ball pit at a children’s playground due to its fluid-like response. The collected material is currently en route to Earth aboard the spacecraft. The practice run of retrieving the mock capsule was part of a series of tests to prepare for the arrival of the real asteroid sample.
Once the capsule arrives and is processed in a clean room, the Bennu material will be curated and stored at NASA’s Johnson Space Center in Houston. This curated material will be shared with scientists worldwide for further analysis, with a focus on understanding the formation and evolution of the solar system, as well as seeking clues about the presence of organic molecules that could have played a role in the development of life.
It’s important to note that the OSIRIS-REx probe itself will not land on Earth next month. Instead, it will continue its journey on an extended mission to explore the asteroid Apophis, another potentially hazardous asteroid. The spacecraft is expected to reach Apophis in 2029, providing additional insights into these celestial bodies and their potential impact on Earth.
During its mission, OSIRIS-REx has provided valuable data and insights into the nature of asteroids and their significance in understanding the origins of our solar system. The successful collection of material from Bennu will add a new dimension to our understanding of these celestial bodies and their potential impact on Earth.
The mission’s success thus far highlights the capability of NASA’s spacecraft to navigate, study, and interact with distant objects in our solar system. The unique challenges posed by Bennu’s surface properties underscore the complexity of exploring and interacting with asteroids, which can vary significantly from one to another.
As the collected material from Bennu arrives on Earth and undergoes analysis, scientists anticipate uncovering new information about the composition, structure, and history of this ancient remnant from the early solar system. The presence of organic molecules, which are essential building blocks for life, could provide valuable insights into the role asteroids played in delivering crucial ingredients to our planet billions of years ago.
The OSIRIS-REx mission’s extended journey to explore Apophis further exemplifies NASA’s commitment to studying and understanding near-Earth objects that have the potential to impact our planet. By studying the characteristics and trajectories of such asteroids, scientists can develop strategies to mitigate potential threats and protect Earth from future impacts.
As OSIRIS-REx continues to contribute to our understanding of asteroids and planetary science, its achievements serve as a testament to the advancements in space exploration and the collaboration between various scientific institutions and agencies. With each new mission, scientists gain a deeper appreciation for the complexity and diversity of our solar system while also advancing our ability to explore and learn from the cosmos.
The upcoming landing of the asteroid sample marks a significant milestone in the OSIRIS-REx mission, offering the promise of new scientific discoveries and insights that could shape our understanding of the solar system’s history and the potential for life beyond Earth.