SCIENCE + TECHNOLOGY

Asteroid sample to land in Utah, scientists studying building blocks of life on Earth

Jul 20, 2023, 8:00 PM

Asteroid sample landing in Utah...

In two months, the first-ever U.S.-obtained asteroid sample will land in Utah. Scientists will use it to study the origin of life. Mosaic of Bennu created by NASA.(NASA/Goddard/University of Arizona)

(NASA/Goddard/University of Arizona)

DUGWAY, Utah — In two months, the first-ever U.S.-obtained asteroid sample will land in Utah’s west desert. Scientists say the sample will provide knowledge for generations to come, like how the building blocks of human life came to Earth.

OSIRIS-REx launched in 2016 and went on to collect 4.5 billion-year-old material from an asteroid.

Bennu would likely have become part of a larger planet if there had been other material around there,” says Lockheed Martin’s Ground Recovery Lead Richard Witherspoon. “So, it gives us a snapshot of what life and materials looked like at the formation of our solar system.”

In late September, the capsule will re-enter Earth’s atmosphere and land in the Utah Desert at the Dugway Proving Ground. After this, scientists will fly the asteroid sample to Houston.

Why land the asteroid sample in Utah?

Witherspoon said this is the third time they’ll be landing a vessel in Dugway. According to Witherspoon, Utah was a good choice because the staff at Dugway has experience in handling objects brought back from space and the area itself is very controlled.

“We have a very large landing ellipse that we need to land in, and we need to make sure no one else could get to our capsule before we do,” Witherspoon says. “Should we have any issues where we don’t land in our ellipse, the ground and air space are protected.”

He adds that Dugway is the closest area that would work for the recovery of OSIRIS-REx.

The capsule will bring back material from the asteroid Bennu. This material was formed around 4.5 billion years ago, around the time our solar system came to be.

“Looking at the whole history of the solar system”

Scientists like Dante Lauretta, mission Principal Investigator and professor at the University of Arizona, are hoping the sample sheds light on how amino acids, the basic building blocks of life, came to earth in the first place.

“We’re looking at the whole history of the solar system here, right?” Lauretta says. “Literally, we’re looking for grains that existed before the sun did before the planets existed, we call those pre-solar grains.

He explains that these grains form in dying stars and float around until they’re trapped in another solar system. Scientists are also interested in protoplanetary discs, Lauretta says. Protoplanetary discs are “the first minerals that go on to become planets.”

Lauretta says the asteroid sample provides a unique opportunity for scientists because it hasn’t been contaminated. He explains that certain rocks on the bottom of the ocean resemble the kind of environment that “origins of life might have occurred.”

But because organisms cover the rocks at the bottom of the ocean, it doesn’t give a good insight into how life originates.

Bennu, however, doesn’t have those biological contaminants. This gives scientists the opportunity to see if any sort of building blocks for life exist in that environment.

“We’re addressing some of the most profound questions that humanity asks: where did we come from and are we alone,” Lauretta says.

Additional benefits of studying the sample

According to Witherspoon, the material from Bennu will also help scientists learn more about how asteroids behave.

He says Bennu has a low probability of impacting Earth. Learning more about it could potentially help in redirecting it, or other asteroids, away from the planet in the future.

Rehearsing for the big day

Witherspoon says there have been several rehearsals for the capsule recovery this year.

He says the rehearsals use a capsule identical to OSIRIS-REx. 

“Having this hardware out in the field and with our team allows us to actually put our hands on hardware that weighs the same,” Witherspoon says. “It’s a very realistic simulation of the hardware for us.”

Being able to practice with an identical capsule helps everyone involved prepare for a reentry that goes as expected. It also prepares everyone for a reentry with unexpected conditions.

Read more: U of U students hoping to help NASA get to the moon

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Asteroid sample to land in Utah, scientists studying building blocks of life on Earth