SCIENCE + TECHNOLOGY

NASA asteroid sample preparing to leave Utah

Sep 25, 2023, 2:00 PM

nasa team grabs asteroid sample from utah base...

Team members prepare to board a helicopter to collect the capsule containing a sample collected from the Bennu asteroid as part of NASA’s Osiris-Rex mission at the U.S. Army’s Dugway Proving Ground in Dugway on Sunday, Sept. 24, 2023. (Megan Nielsen/Deseret News)

(Megan Nielsen/Deseret News)

DUGWAY, Utah — Utah is preparing to hand off the baton in a historic mission that brought physical material from an asteroid to Earth.

The capsule containing what scientists estimate is 250 grams of material from asteroid Bennu takes flight from Utah’s Dugway Proving Ground military base to the Johnson Space Center in Houston sometime Monday.

OSIRIS-REx began its seven-year mission to gather 4.5 billion-year-old asteroid material in 2016.

It arrived at Asteroid Bennu in 2018, then circled it until 2020, when it touched down on the surface and sucked up particles into a capsule. OSIRIS-REx finished her mission Sunday morning, sending that precious capsule to the sands of Utah’s West Desert.

Twenty minutes after delivering the historic cargo, OSIRIS-REx embarked on a new journey to the asteroid Apophis, under the new name OSIRIS-APEX. The vessel won’t reach the asteroid until 2029.

The state of the asteroid sample

Sunday’s landing operation in Dugway was nearly perfect, according to Dr. Dante Lauretta, a professor at the University of Arizona, and the principal investigator of the OSIRIS-REx mission.

Dugway saw light rain on Thursday, which could’ve played a role in the capsule standing perfectly in the sand on its topped-shape end. The capsule entered Earth’s atmosphere at 5,000 degrees Fahrenheit, which is half the surface temperature of the sun.

People in attendance Sunday gave a collective cheer and sigh of relief when the capsule’s parachute deployed, helping it to reach a final descent speed of 11 mph.

The capsule, while visibly charred on the outside, was “remarkably clean” on the inside, according to Eileen Stansbury, the chief scientist at the Johnson Space Center.

NASA transported the capsule to a temporary clean room on the Dugway Proving Ground. Since then, the capsule has been under a steady flow of nitrogen, to preserve it from any Earthly contamination.

“These samples are an amazing treasure trove for generations,” Stansbery said.

The goal

Once the sample reaches the Johnson Space Center, contributing organizations and scientists across the world will share it for what will likely be generations of research.

Scientists believe an asteroid, similar to Bennu, could’ve brought the very building blocks of life — amino acids, DNA, RNA, etc. — to Earth billions of years ago. Bennu’s material is about as old as our solar system.

Scientists, like Lauretta, are hoping it answers some of life’s most pressing questions.

“[It] may hold the clues to why Earth is a habitable world and how did we get here, and really maybe are we alone?” Lauretta said.

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