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An asteroid sample collected by NASA has landed on Earth, giving scientists the opportunity to learn more about the origins of the solar system and capture a piece of a massive space rock that has a chance of colliding with our planet in the future. It is the first time the agency has performed such a feat.
Seven years after being launched into space, the OSIRIS-REx spacecraft flew by Earth on Sunday to deliver the original sample from the near-Earth asteroid Bennu.
OSIRIS-REx, which stands for Origins, Spectral Interpretation, Resource Identification, Security and Regolith Explorer, launched in 2016 and began orbiting Bennu in 2018. The spacecraft collected the sample in 2020 and set off on its long journey back to Earth in May. 2021. The mission traveled a total of 3.86 billion miles to Bennu and back.
NASA/Goddard/University of Arizona
The spacecraft collected a sample of rocks and dirt from Bennu in October 2020.
The spacecraft dropped the sample capsule — containing an estimated 8.8 ounces of asteroid rock and soil — from 63,000 miles (102,000 kilometers) above Earth’s surface early Sunday, entering the planet’s atmosphere at 10:42 a.m. ET during… It travels quickly. Its speed is about 27,650 mph (44,498 km/h).
Parachutes were deployed to slow the capsule until it landed gently at 11 mph (17.7 km/h). The sample landed at the Department of Defense Test and Training Range in Utah about 10 minutes after entering the atmosphere, a few minutes ahead of schedule.
“Congratulations to the OSIRIS-REx team. You did it,” said NASA Administrator Bill Nelson. “You brought back something extraordinary, the largest asteroid sample ever received on Earth. This mission proves that NASA is doing big things, things that inspire us, and things that unite us. The task was not impossible. “It was the impossible that became possible.”
OSIRIS-REx continues its tour of the solar system, where the spacecraft has already set off to take a detailed look at a different asteroid called Apophis.
The mission now has a new name: OSIRIS-APEX, for Origins, Spectral Interpretation, Resource Identification and Security-APophis EXplorer.
What happened after landing?
Four helicopters transported rescue and search operations Teams returned to the landing site and conducted assessments to ensure the capsule was not damaged in any way, said Rich Burns, OSIRIS-REx project manager at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Maryland. The team confirmed that the capsule was not compromised during landing.
Resuscitation teams, that was Training for this event for several monthsThe capsule recovered the capsule as soon as it was safe, said Sandra Freund, OSIRIS-REx program manager at Lockheed Martin Space, which collaborated with NASA to build the spacecraft, provide flight operations and help recover the 100-pound capsule.
The initial recovery team, equipped with protective gloves and masks, made sure the capsule was cool enough to touch, given that it reached temperatures of up to 5,000 degrees Fahrenheit (2,760 degrees Celsius) during reentry, Burns said. The team also ensured that the capsule’s battery did not rupture and leak any toxic fumes.
The sample return capsule was charred due to the extreme temperatures it encountered upon reentry, but the asteroid sample remained safely isolated inside.
A scientific team collected samples from the landing site, including air particles, dust and dirt.
“One of the main scientific goals of OSIRIS-REx is to return an authentic sample, which means no foreign materials get in the way of our investigation while analyzing the samples,” said Dante Lauretta, principal investigator of OSIRIS-REx at the University of Arizona in Tucson. “Although it is unlikely, we want to make sure that any substances within Utah that may interact with the sample are well documented.”
Loretta has worked on the mission for nearly twenty years and remembers when it was part of an idea submitted to NASA. Loretta was there every step of the way, including when the capsule was assembled and installed on the spacecraft prior to launch. On Sunday, he was one of the first people to approach the capsule after it landed to welcome it home.
“It was like seeing an old friend you haven’t seen in a long time,” he said. “I wanted to hug her. One of the big moments for me was seeing her. I knew we had done it, that we had made it. As amazing as it seemed all those years ago, it has become.”
NASA capsule science commander Scott Sandford, NASA astronomy curator Francis McCubbin, and University of Arizona OSIRIS-REx principal investigator Dante Lauretta (left to right) collected air and dirt particles and took images shortly after the capsule touched down.
A helicopter loaded the sample in a cargo net and delivered it to a temporary clean room near the landing site. Within this space, the processing team will conduct a nitrogen flush, called purging, to prevent any part of the Earth’s atmosphere from entering the sample canister and contaminating it. Larger pieces will be stripped from the capsule, said Nicole Luning, OSIRIS-REx processing lead at NASA’s Johnson Space Center in Houston.
A team will prepare the sample tray 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.
The recovery team will also evaluate all footage taken of the landing to determine whether the parachute used to initially stabilize the capsule was deployed on time. While the film was expected to be released, the team was unable to see visual evidence. The main parachute, responsible for slowing the capsule to a safe landing speed, was also deployed early.
“But ultimately, when that main chute was deployed, it basically righted any of the sins that might have come before it,” said Tim Preiser, chief engineer for deep space exploration at Lockheed Martin. “It went down like a feather.”
Details of the sample will be revealed through a NASA broadcast from the Johnson Space Center on October 11. While the science team will not have enough time to fully evaluate the sample, the researchers plan to collect some fine material at the top of the can on Tuesday. “For a quick analysis that can be shared in October,” Loretta said. He added that the preliminary analysis will look for the presence of metals and chemical elements.
A helicopter delivered the capsule containing the sample to a temporary clean room.
Scientists will analyze rocks and soil over the next two years in a dedicated clean room inside the Johnson Space Center. The sample will also be split and sent to laboratories around the world, including OSIRIS-REx mission partners at the Canadian Space Agency and the Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency. About 70% of the sample will remain pure in storage, so future generations with better technology can learn more than is possible now.
Lori Glaze, director of NASA’s planetary science division, said that if a government shutdown occurred, “it would not jeopardize the safe processing and handling of the asteroid sample.”
“It is likely that some steps leading to this anticipated analysis will be delayed, but the sample will remain protected and secure despite any disruptions to the timeline,” she said during a press conference on Friday. “The specimen has waited over 4 billion years for humans to study it, and if it takes a little longer, I think we will be fine.”
A member of the recovery team inspected the capsule before it was moved to a temporary clean room at Dugway Proving Ground in Utah.
along with A sample was previously returned from the asteroid Ryugu Through Japan’s Hayabusa 2 mission, rocks and soil could reveal key information about the beginning of our solar system. Scientists believe that carbonaceous asteroids like Bennu collided with Earth early during the planet’s formation, delivering elements such as water.
“Scientists believe that the asteroid Bennu represents the oldest material in the solar system, which was formed in large dying stars and supernova explosions,” Glaze said. “That’s why NASA is investing in these small-body missions to increase our understanding of how our solar system formed and how it evolved.”
But the sample could also provide insight into Bennu, which has a chance of colliding with Earth in the future.
The capsule was brought into a temporary clean room just two hours after landing.
It is important to understand more about the number of near-Earth asteroids that may be on an eventual collision course with our planet. A better understanding of their composition and orbits is key to predicting which asteroids may have the closest approach to Earth and when – and is essential for developing methods to deflect these asteroids based on their composition.
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