Robotic spacecraft drops asteroid sample in Utah desert

OSIRIS-REx has delivered a sample of rocks and dust which it managed to grab from the asteroid with its robotic arm.

NASA’s robotic spacecraft OSIRIS-REx safely dropped an asteroid sample in the Utah desert.

This was the third asteroid sample – and the biggest yet – ever returned to Earth. The first two were brought back by Japan’s space agency.

A capsule of rocks and dust collected from asteroid Bennu, a carbon-rich asteroid discovered in 1999, landed in a targeted area of Utah’s desert, near Salt Lake City on Sunday.

It’s now in a temporary location in a hangar before being transported to NASA’s Johnson Space Center in Houston on Monday, September 25th.

“Curation scientists there will disassemble the canister, extract and weigh the sample, create an inventory of the rocks and dust, and, over time, distribute pieces of Bennu to scientists worldwide,” NASA said.

Capsule with Bennu sample

The Bennu sample is an estimated 8.8 ounces, or 250 grams. It far surpasses the two other samples returned to Earth – the 5 grams carried back from Ryugu in 2020 or the tiny specimen delivered from asteroid Itokawa in 2010.

Scientists around the globe will examine the sample in an attempt to “better understand planet formation and the origin of organics and water that led to life on Earth.”

Bennu measures 500 meters (547 yards) across, making it wider than the Empire State Building is tall, but still tiny compared to the Chicxulub asteroid that struck Earth some 66 million years ago, wiping out the dinosaurs.

It’s a potentially hazardous asteroid, and its examination should help better understand the types of asteroids that could come our way in the future.

This is the first delivery of an asteroid sample for the US. The mission was launched on September 8th, 2016, with hundreds of people remotely directing the spacecraft’s journey.

The spacecraft reached Bennu in 2018, and orbited it for two years before it was able to get close enough to snatch a sample of asteroid materials with its robotic arm. The spacecraft left for Earth in May, 2021.

“Today marks an extraordinary milestone not just for the OSIRIS-REx team but for science as a whole,” said Dante Lauretta, principal investigator for OSIRIS-REx at the University of Arizona, Tucson. “Successfully delivering samples from Bennu to Earth is a triumph of collaborative ingenuity and a testament to what we can accomplish when we unite with a common purpose. But let’s not forget – while this may feel like the end of an incredible chapter, it’s truly just the beginning of another. We now have the unprecedented opportunity to analyze these samples and delve deeper into the secrets of our solar system."

The OSIRIS-REx spacecraft traveled billions of miles to Bennu and back. At the time, it was 63,000 miles (102,000 kilometers) from Earth’s surface – about one-third of the distance from Earth to the Moon.

Specialists deployed two parachutes to stabilize the capsule and slow it down to 11 mph (18 kph) before the touchdown.

Like other asteroids, Bennu is a relic of the early solar system, and it hasn’t changed for 4.5 billion years, meaning that it holds valuable clues to the origins and development of rocky planets such as Earth. It may even contain organic molecules similar to those necessary for the emergence of microbes.

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