A historic NASA mission has returned to Earth with samples from a giant meteorite

FILE – This illustration provided by NASA depicts the OSIRIS-REx spacecraft on the asteroid Bennu. (Conceptual Image Laboratory/Goddard Space Flight Center/NASA via AP, file)

the first Asteroid samples obtained by NASA from deep space parachuted into the Utah desert On Sunday, the culmination of a historic journey that lasted seven years.

On a flight around the Earth, The Osiris-Rex spacecraft launched the sample capsule 100,000 km away. The small capsule landed four hours later on a remote area of ​​military terrain, while the mother ship set off in search of another asteroid.

Scientists reckon so The capsule contains at least a cup of debris from the carbon-rich asteroid known as Bennu. But they won’t know that for sure until the container is opened. Some spilled and floated when the spacecraft collected too many rocks and the rocks got stuck in the lid of the container during assembly three years ago.

Japan, the only other country to return asteroid samples, collected about a teaspoon in two asteroid missions.

The gravel and dust were delivered on Sunday They represent the greatest spoils from beyond the moon. The samples, which are preserved building blocks from the dawn of our solar system 4.5 billion years ago, will help scientists better understand how Earth and life formed.

The Osiris-Rex mother ship set off on a $1 billion mission in 2016. It arrived on Bennu two years later and, using a long vacuum plume, extracted debris from the small, round space rock in 2020. When it returned, the ship had traveled 6.2 billion kilometers.

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NASA’s recovery efforts in Utah included helicopters as well as a temporary clean room set up at the Department of Defense Test and Training Range in Utah. The samples will be transferred Monday morning to a new laboratory at NASA’s Johnson Space Center in Houston. The building already contains hundreds of kilograms of lunar rocks collected by Apollo astronauts more than half a century ago.

The mission’s principal scientist, Dante Lauretta of the University of Arizona, will accompany the samples to Texas. He said before landing that the container’s opening in Houston in the next day or two would be the “real moment of truth,” given the uncertainty over the size of its contents.

Engineers estimate the container contains 250 grams (8.82 ounces) of beano, plus or minus 100 grams (plus or minus 3.53 ounces). Even at the minimum, it would easily exceed the minimum mission requirements, Laurita said.

NASA’s chief observer, Nicole Luning, said it would take a few weeks to get an accurate measurement.

NASA plans to hold a public demonstration in October.

FILE – This undated image provided by NASA shows the asteroid Bennu as seen from the OSIRIS-REx spacecraft. (NASA/Goddard/University of Arizona/CSA/YORK/MDA via AP, file)

Bennu, which currently orbits the Sun 81 million kilometers from Earth, is about a third of a mile (half a kilometer) in diameter.About the size of the Empire State Building but shaped like a peak. It is believed to be the broken portion of a much larger asteroid.

During a two-year study, Osiris Rex discovered that Bennu was a rubble pile filled with rocks and craters. The surface was so loose that the spacecraft’s vacuum arm sank 0.5 meters into the asteroid, sucking up more material than intended and jamming the covering.

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These close observations may be useful at the end of the next century. Bennu is expected to come dangerously close to Earth in 2182, perhaps close enough to crash. According to Loretta, the data obtained by Osiris-Rex will help in the deflection of the asteroid.

Osiris Rex is already chasing the asteroid Apophis, and will reach it in 2029.

This was the third time NASA had returned samples from a robotic deep space mission. In 2004, the Genesis spacecraft sent up pieces of solar wind, but the samples were lost when the parachute malfunctioned and the capsule crashed to Earth. The Stardust spacecraft successfully delivered cometary dust in 2006.

NASA’s plans to return samples from Mars have been put on hold after an independent review panel criticized the cost and complexity. The Mars rover Perseverance has spent the past two years collecting core samples for eventual transport to Earth.

NASA photo of a member of the OSIRIS-REx mission capsule recovery team at a field rehearsal, August 29, 2023, for recovery at the Department of Defense Test and Training Range in Utah (USA). EFE/Keegan Barber/NASA

The journey to Bennu began in 2016, when the OSIRIS-REx spacecraft took off from NASA’s Cape Canaveral (Florida, USA).

It arrived at Bennu in 2018, and after spending two years flying around the asteroid looking for the best place to take samples, the spacecraft finally approached the surface with a three-metre-long vacuum at the ready to suck up dust and debris. Star rocks.

However, it collected so much material that the capsule could not close properly and some rocks became trapped around the edge of the lid, getting lost in space.

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Despite the incident, in May 2021, the Osiris-Rex ship began its return journey to Earth with the mission of delivering the capsule containing Bennu’s remains to NASA.

(With information from AP and EFE)

Lovell Loxley

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