SCIENCE + TECHNOLOGY

A long-awaited asteroid sample has landed in the US

Sep 24, 2023, 7:00 AM | Updated: 9:39 am

(CNN) — Seven years after launching to space, the OSIRIS-REx spacecraft flew by Earth Sunday to ...

This mosaic image of asteroid Bennu is composed of 12 PolyCam images collected on Dec. 2 by the OSIRIS-REx spacecraft from a range of 15 miles (24 km). Credit: NASA/Goddard/University of Arizona

(24 km)

(CNN) — Seven years after launching to space, the OSIRIS-REx spacecraft flew by Earth Sunday to deliver a pristine sample collected from the near-Earth asteroid Bennu. It’s NASA’s first time returning an asteroid sample from space.

NASA is providing a livestream of the delivery.

OSIRIS-REx, which stands for Origins, Spectral Interpretation, Resource Identification, Security, Regolith Explorer, lifted off in 2016 and began orbiting Bennu in 2018. The spacecraft collected the sample in 2020 and set off on its lengthy return trip to Earth in May 2021.

The spacecraft dropped the sample capsule — containing an estimated 8.8 ounces of asteroid rocks and soil — from a distance of 63,000 miles (102,000 kilometers) above Earth’s surface early Sunday, and entered the planet’s atmosphere at 10:42 a.m. ET while traveling at a speed of about 27,650 miles per hour (44,498 kilometers per hour).

Parachutes deployed to slow the capsule to a gentle touchdown at 11 miles per hour (17.7 kilometers per hour). The sample landed in the Defense Department’s Utah Test and Training Range about 10 minutes after entering the atmosphere.

OSIRIS-REx is continuing its tour of the solar system — the spacecraft has already set off to capture a detailed look at a different asteroid named Apophis.

What happens after landing

Four helicopters are transporting recovery and research teams to the landing site and will conduct aerial assessments to make sure the capsule isn’t damaged in any way, said Rich Burns, OSIRIS-REx project manager at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Maryland.

Recovery teams, which have been training for the event for months, will be standing by to retrieve the capsule once it is safe to do so, said Sandra Freund, OSIRIS-REx program manager at Lockheed Martin Space, which partnered with NASA to build the spacecraft, provide flight operations and help recover the capsule.

The initial recovery team, outfitted with protective gloves and masks, will ensure that the capsule is cool enough to touch, given that it will have reached temperatures up to 5,000 degrees Fahrenheit (2,760 degrees Celsius) during reentry, Burns said. The team will also make sure the capsule’s battery didn’t rupture and leak any toxic fumes.

A science team will collect samples from the landing site, including air, dust and dirt particles.

“One of the key scientific objectives of OSIRIS-REx is to return a pristine sample and pristine means that no foreign materials hamper our investigation during sample analysis,” said Dante Lauretta, OSIRIS-REx principal investigator at the University of Arizona in Tucson. “As unlikely as it is, we do want to make sure any materials that are out there in the Utah range that may interact with the sample are well documented.”

A helicopter will carry the sample in a cargo net and deliver it to a temporary clean room near the landing site. Within this space, the curation team will conduct a nitrogen flow, called a purge, to prevent any of Earth’s atmosphere from entering the sample canister and contaminating it. The larger pieces of the capsule will be stripped away, said Nicole Lunning, OSIRIS-REx curation lead at NASA’s Johnson Space Center in Houston.

A team will prepare the sample canister for transport on a C-17 aircraft to NASA’s Johnson Space Center in Houston on Monday. Scientists expect to remove the lid to see the sample for the first time on Tuesday.

What the sample may reveal

Details about the sample will be revealed through a NASA broadcast from Johnson Space Center on October 11. While the science team will not have had time to fully assess the sample, the researchers plan to collect some fine-grained material at the top of canister Tuesday for a quick analysis that can be shared in October, Lauretta said.

Scientists will analyze the rocks and soil for the next two years at a dedicated clean room inside Johnson Space Center. The sample will also be divided up and sent to laboratories around the globe, including OSIRIS-REx mission partners at the Canadian Space Agency and Japanese Aerospace Exploration Agency. About 70% of the sample will remain pristine in storage so future generations with better technology can learn even more than what’s now possible.

If a government shutdown occurs, “it will not endanger the curation and safe handling of the asteroid sample,” said Lori Glaze, director for NASA’s Planetary Sciences Division.

“Certain steps leading to this highly anticipated analysis will possibly be delayed, but the sample will remain protected and safe despite any disruptions to the schedule,” she said during a news conference Friday. “The sample has waited for more than 4 billion years for humans to study it and if it takes us a little longer, I think we’ll be OK.”

Along with a previously returned sample of the asteroid Ryugu from Japan’s Hayabusa2 mission, the rocks and soil could reveal key information about the beginning of our solar system. Scientists believe that carbonaceous asteroids such as Bennu crashed into Earth early during the planet’s formation, delivering elements like water.

“Scientists believe that the asteroid Bennu is representative of the solar system’s own oldest materials forged in large dying stars and supernova explosions,” Glaze said. “And for this reason, NASA is investing in these missions devoted to small bodies to increase our understanding of how our solar system formed and how it evolved.”

But the sample can also provide insights into Bennu, which has a chance of colliding with Earth in the future.

It’s crucial to understand more about the population of near-Earth asteroids that may be on an eventual collision course with our planet. A better grasp of their composition and orbits is key to predicting which asteroids may have the closest approaches to Earth and when — and essential to developing methods of deflecting these asteroids based on their composition.

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A long-awaited asteroid sample has landed in the US