NASA’s first mission to recover an asteroid sample and bring it back to Earth is set to conclude with a risky descent into the Utah Desert. This groundbreaking mission aims to provide scientists with valuable insights into the formation of our solar system and the conditions that led to the habitability of Earth.
Launched in 2016, the American space probe OSIRIS-REx successfully collected a sample from an asteroid named Bennu almost three years ago. Now, on Sunday around 9:00 a.m. local time, the probe will release a capsule containing the precious sample about 108,000 kilometers (67,000 miles) away from Earth. The final descent will last for 13 minutes, during which the capsule will enter the atmosphere at a staggering speed of approximately 43,000 kilometers per hour and endure temperatures as high as 2,800 degrees Celsius.
If all goes according to plan, two parachutes will ensure a soft landing for the capsule in the desert area spanning 250 square miles (650 square kilometers). However, reaching this target area is comparable to “throwing a dart across a basketball court and hitting the target,” according to Rich Burns, OSIRIS-REx project manager at NASA. The meticulous preparations include contingency plans for various scenarios such as an abort if conditions are not favorable.
The primary objective is to preserve the pristine form of the asteroid material within the capsule. To achieve this goal, teams have conducted thorough rehearsals and even simulated crash landings. Once safely on the ground, experts will carefully examine and secure its condition before transporting it via helicopter to a temporary clean room.
The following day, specialists will transport the sample to NASA’s Johnson Space Center in Houston for further analysis in their highly specialized laboratory. Over several days, scientists will meticulously separate pieces of rock and dust from within it. While some portions of the sample will be immediately studied, others will be stored for future generations equipped with more advanced technology.
The significance of this mission extends beyond the recovery of an asteroid sample. It builds upon previous missions by Japanese probes that brought back samples from asteroids in 2010 and 2020. The latter revealed the presence of uracil, a fundamental component of RNA, strengthening the theory that life on Earth may have originated from outer space through asteroid collisions.
Bennu, measuring 500 meters in diameter, orbits the Sun and makes its closest approach to Earth every six years. Although there is a small chance (1 in 2,700) of a catastrophic collision with Earth in 2182, NASA’s study of Bennu’s composition could aid in developing strategies to deflect such asteroids.
The potential insights gained from studying Bennu and other asteroids are immense. These celestial bodies contain original materials from the early solar system and may hold clues to some of humanity’s deepest questions about our origins and the existence of life itself. As Dante Lauretta, principal investigator of OSIRIS-REx at the University of Arizona, states, these samples could represent “the seeds of life” that were delivered to our planet by asteroids billions of years ago.
In essence, NASA’s historic mission to recover an asteroid sample is entering its final phase with a perilous return to Earth. The successful retrieval and analysis of this material will significantly contribute to our understanding of the solar system’s formation and how Earth became habitable. Furthermore, it has the potential to shed light on the origins of life on our planet and help us prepare for future encounters with potentially dangerous asteroids.
According to sources familiar with the matter