NASA is completing its preparations for the landing of a precious sample of the asteroid on Earth next month.
The agency’s OSIRIS-REx mission teams conducted a crucial test on Wednesday (August 30), recovering a mock capsule that had fallen to Earth at the US Department of Defense’s Test and Training Range in Utah, in the desert west of Salt Lake City.
This is where OSIRIS-REx’s true sample capsule, containing about 8.8 ounces (250 grams) of material from the near-Earth asteroid Bennu, will land on September 24.
“We are now just weeks away from getting a piece of the history of the solar system back on Earth, and this successful drop test ensures we are ready,” said Nicola Fox, associate administrator for NASA’s Science Mission Directorate in Washington. Statement on Wednesday.
Fox added: “The original materials from the asteroid Bennu will help shed light on the formation of our solar system 4.5 billion years ago, and perhaps even on how life began on Earth.”
Related: Dramatic sampling shows that asteroid Bennu is not what scientists expected
OSIRIS-REx was launched in September 2016, on a mission to study and collect samples from Bennu, a potentially dangerous asteroid about 1,650 feet (500 meters) across.
The spacecraft arrived at Bennu in December 2018. It then monitored the asteroid closely for about two years, taking measurements of the rocks and looking for good places to swoop down and pick up a sample.
That moment arrived in October 2020, and it came with a fair amount of drama and surprise.
“We definitely thought we were going to land on a solid surface – this was an asteroid, this was a rock from outer space – but it actually responded more like a fluid, as if you dropped yourself into a ball pit somewhere.” “It’s a children’s playground,” OSIRIS-REx principal investigator Dante Lauretta, of the University of Arizona, said during a press conference on Wednesday.
“The good news is that because of this really smooth surface, we collected a huge amount of material,” he added.
This material is now making its way to Earth aboard the OSIRIS-REx spacecraft, which stands for “Origins, Spectral Interpretation, Resource Identification, and Security–Regolith Explorer.” The mission team has been training for its arrival for some time, conducting a series of tests during the spring and summer. NASA officials said Wednesday’s capsule recovery is part of the last major exercise.
After landing, the capsule will be transported to a clean room at Utah Military Field, where it will be processed. Bennu’s material will then be sent to NASA’s Johnson Space Center in Houston, where it will be curated.
Over the coming months and years, some of this asteroid material will be sent to scientists around the world, who will study it for clues about how our solar system formed and evolved.
Researchers will also look for evidence of organic molecules, the carbon-containing building blocks of life. Carbon-rich asteroids like Bennu are thought to have delivered much of this material to our planet, along with much of the water, through impacts long ago.
By the way, the OSIRIS-REx probe will not land on Earth next month: the probe will continue to fly, on an extended mission to explore the asteroid Apophis.
OSIRIS-REx is scheduled to reach Apophis — like Bennu, a potentially dangerous asteroid — in 2029.
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