(CNN) — An asteroid sample collected by NASA and landing on Earth gives scientists the opportunity to learn more about the origins of the solar system and captures a piece of a massive space rock that has a chance of colliding with our planet in the future. This is the first time the agency has achieved 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.
NASA live-streamed the delivery and recovery operations.
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 began its long journey to Earth in May 2021.
The spacecraft dropped the sample capsule – which contains about 250 grams of rocks and asteroid soil – from a distance of 102,000 kilometers above the Earth’s surface on Sunday morning, and entered the planet’s atmosphere at 10:00 am: 42 am (Miami time) during its travel. At a speed of about 44,498 kilometers per hour.
Parachutes were deployed to slow down the capsule so that it could land smoothly at a speed of 17.7 kilometers per hour. The sample landed at the Department of Defense Test and Training Range in Utah about 10 minutes after entering the atmosphere.
OSIRIS-REx continues its journey through the solar system and has already departed to observe another asteroid called Apophis in detail.
What happens after landing?
Rich Burns, OSIRIS-REx project manager at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Maryland, said four helicopters transported rescue and search teams to the landing site and conducted assessments to ensure the capsule was safe and did not suffer any damage. The team confirmed that the capsule did not suffer any violations during landing.
Sandra Freund, OSIRIS-REx program manager at Lockheed Martin Space, which partnered with NASA to build the capsule, explained that recovery teams, who have trained for months for the occasion, are prepared to recover the capsule as soon as it is safe to do so. spacecraft, providing flight operations and assisting in the recovery of the 45 kg capsule.
Burns said the initial recovery team, equipped with protective gloves and masks, made sure the capsule was cool enough to touch, as temperatures reached 2,760 degrees Celsius during reentry. The team also made sure that the capsule’s battery did not rupture and release toxic gases.
A scientific team collected samples from the landing site, which included air particles, dust and dirt.
“One of the main scientific goals of OSIRIS-REx is to return an authentic sample,” said Dante Lauretta, principal investigator of OSIRIS-REx at the University of Arizona in Tucson. “Original means that there is no foreign material interfering with our research while analyzing the samples.” . “Although it is unlikely, we want to make sure that any substance within Utah that could interact with the sample is well documented.”
A helicopter transferred the sample in a cargo net and took it to a temporary clean room near the landing site. In this space, the processing team will perform a flow of nitrogen, called purging, to prevent any part of the Earth’s atmosphere from getting into the sample bottle and contaminating it. Larger portions of the capsule will be removed, explained Nicole Luning, OSIRIS-REx conservation manager at NASA’s Johnson Space Center in Houston.
On Monday, a team will prepare the sample canister for transport on a C-17 plane to NASA’s Johnson Space Center in Houston. Scientists hope to remove the cover to see the specimen for the first time on Tuesday.
What a sample can reveal
Details of the sample will be revealed via a NASA broadcast from the Johnson Space Center on October 11. Although the science team won’t have enough time to fully evaluate it, the researchers plan to collect some fine material at the top of the container on Tuesday for quick analysis that can be shared in October, Loretta said.
Scientists will analyze rocks and soil over the next two years in a clean room at 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 intact in the repository so that future generations, with better technology, can learn more than is possible now.
Lori Glaze, director of NASA’s planetary science division, said that in the event of a government shutdown, “the safe preservation and handling of the asteroid sample would not be compromised.”
“Some steps leading to this long-awaited analysis will likely be delayed, but the sample will remain protected and secure despite any disruption to the schedule,” he said during a press conference on Friday. “The sample has waited over 4 billion years for humans to study it, and if we take a little longer, I think we will be OK.”
With a sample from the asteroid Ryugu sent earlier by Japan’s Hayabusa 2 mission, the rocks and soil could reveal key information about the beginnings of our solar system. Scientists believe that carbonaceous asteroids such as Bennu collided with Earth early in the planet’s formation, providing elements such as water.
“Scientists believe that the asteroid Bennu represents the oldest material in the solar system itself, 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.”
In addition, the sample could also provide information about Bennu, which has the potential to collide with Earth in the future.
It is important to better understand how many near-Earth asteroids could hit our planet. Better knowledge of their composition and orbits is key to predicting which asteroids may approach Earth and when, and is also necessary to develop methods for deflecting these asteroids based on their composition.
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