NASA capsule brings home samples of asteroids dating back to the birth of the solar system

Saucer-shaped capsule Carrying asteroid fragments A spacecraft that may hold clues to the birth of the solar system slammed into Earth’s atmosphere on Sunday and touched down on a parachute-assisted target in Utah, concluding a thrilling seven-year, four-billion-mile journey.

Launched from the OSIRIS-REx mothership and loaded with a half-pound of rocks and soil collected in 2020 from an asteroid known as Bennu, the 110-pound, 31-inch-wide sample return capsule crested to the top of the recognizable planet. The atmosphere, at an altitude of 82 miles, was traveling at 27,700 miles per hour at 10:42 a.m. EDT.

A camera on a rescue helicopter shows the OSIRIS-REx asteroid sample return capsule resting in the Utah desert near its main parachute after a successful high-speed descent to Earth.


Over the next two minutes, it rapidly decelerated in a hellish blaze of atmospheric friction, the capsule’s heat shield withstanding reentry temperatures of more than 5,000 degrees and a braking force equivalent to 32 times the force of gravity as it headed toward landing at the Utah Test and Training Range. West Salt Lake City.

With scientists and engineers holding their collective breath — a similar capsule crashed in Utah in 2004 when its parachutes failed to open — the OSIRIS-REx sample return capsule survived its trial by fire and supposedly deployed a stabilized parachute at an altitude of 20 miles. .

The 24-foot-wide main capsule was expected to open and inflate at 5,000 feet, but NASA said it actually deployed at 20,000 feet. That may have contributed to the slightly earlier than expected landing, but in any case, the main chute appears to be lowering the sample return capsule to an expected landing at 11 mph at 10:52 a.m. EDT, the final step in Landing process. Biting lineage.

Rescue crews from prime contractor Lockheed Martin and the Utah Test and Training Range were on the scene within minutes documenting the capsule’s condition, looking for any signs of a breach that might have contaminated the original samples inside.

Also on hand: University of Arizona principal investigator Dante Lauretta, part of a team tasked with characterizing the surrounding environment to precisely document the chemical composition of the landing zone. just in case.

The OSIRIS-REx asteroid sample return capsule, its outer skin charred by the heat of the return, was transported from the landing site to a nearby air-filtered clean room for initial disassembly. The capsule and its precious payload of rocks and dust collected from the asteroid Bennu are expected to be shipped to an environmentally isolated laboratory at Johnson Space Center on Monday for detailed analysis.


But there were no obvious problems, the capsule was intact and there were no signs of any breaches that could have allowed terrestrial contaminants inside. Once that was confirmed, a helicopter carried the capsule into a temporary, air-filtered “clean room” to begin disassembly and make preparations to ship the samples to a more advanced laboratory at the Johnson Space Center in Houston on Monday.

The samples — the largest collection of extraterrestrial material since the Apollo Moon program — represent the raw material that formed the sun and its retinue of planets 4.5 billion years ago, Loretta said.

“We’re going back to the dawn of the solar system, looking for clues about why Earth is a habitable world, this rare gem in outer space that has oceans and has a protective atmosphere,” he said. “We think that all of this material was brought[to Earth]by these carbon-rich asteroids very early in the formation of our planetary system.

Asteroid Bennu, as imaged by NASA’s OSIRIS-REx spacecraft. Bennu is a B-type asteroid about 1,500 feet across that orbits the Sun at an average distance of 105 million miles. There is a 1 in 2,700 chance that Bennu will collide with Earth between 2175 and 2199.


“And of course the biggest question, which drives my scientific investigations, is the origin of life. What is life? How did it arise? And why was Earth the place where it arose? … We believe that we are bringing back this type of material, perhaps representative of the seeds of life that “These asteroids brought them at the beginning of Earth’s history.”

Two Japanese spacecraft returned small asteroid samples in 2010 and 2020, but OSIRIS-REx — a convoluted acronym that stands for Origins, Spectral Interpretation, Resource Identification and Security Regolith Explorer — is the first mission of its kind by NASA.

After initial analysis in Houston, NASA will share samples from Bennu with researchers around the world.

An artist’s concept of the OSIRIS-REx spacecraft, built by Lockheed Martin for NASA, in orbit around the asteroid Bennu.


“This is a gift to the world,” Loretta said. “We have laboratories on four continents, 16 time zones, hundreds of researchers, and more than 60 laboratories preparing to acquire this material, and we are ready to begin the final science campaign for the main OSIRIS-REx mission.”

The OSIRIS-REx spacecraft and sample return capsule, equipped with three cameras, two spectrometers, a laser altimeter and an X-ray imaging system, were launched aboard a United Launch Alliance Atlas 5 rocket from Cape Canaveral on September 8. 2016.

To reach Bennu, which orbits in a plane tilted six degrees from Earth, OSIRIS-REx orbited the Sun and then performed a gravity-assisted flyby of Earth’s accelerator on September 22, 2017. The spacecraft finally slid into orbit around Bennu. In late 2018.

Scientists were surprised by what they found. Instead of a typical body, with fine-grained soil and rock over a somewhat more solid interior, Bennu, which is as wide as the Empire State Building, turns out to be a loosely compacted pile of rubble that behaves like a liquid. Of solid.

After extensive mapping to identify a safe point for sample collection, OSIRIS-REx slowly descended toward the surface on October 20, 2020, and its circular-shaped “touch-and-go sample acquisition mechanism,” or TAGSAM, was finally recovered. 11-foot-long robotic arm.

Upon contact, the probe fired a jet of nitrogen gas around the 12-inch-wide interior of TAGSAM, stirring up the soil and small rocks underneath and blowing some of the material into the collection filters before the spacecraft reversed course and retreated.

Moment of truth: The OSIRIS-REx sampling mechanism, known as TAGSAM, dives to Bennu’s surface in 2020 to capture rock and soil samples to return to Earth.


“It behaved very much like a fluid, and there was no resistance to the downward motion of the spacecraft,” Loretta said in an interview. “We sank about 50 cm (20 inches) and if we hadn’t fired the back thrusters, I think we would have gone straight into the asteroid and disappeared.”

After backing away from Bennu, the TAGSAM mechanism and its precious samples were stored inside the OSIRIS-REx return capsule for the long journey back to Earth and the dramatic return on Sunday.

After correcting course to line up at the landing site in Utah, the OSIRIS-REx mothership launched its sample return capsule at 6:42 a.m. EDT. With the capsule safely on its way, the OSIRIS-REx spacecraft fired its thrusters 20 minutes later, ensuring it would safely miss Earth by about 484 miles.

The “diversion” maneuver put the spacecraft on course for a close encounter with the asteroid Apophis in 2029.

Apophis is about 1,200 feet across and will come within 20,000 miles of Earth in 2029, which is a very near miss in astronomical terms. The OSIRIS-REx spacecraft, now known as the OSIRIS-Apophis Explorer, will enter orbit around Apophis shortly after the asteroid flies by Earth, beginning expanded observations.

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