NASA just flew home its first asteroid chunks from outer space

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The capsule’s recovery in the Utah desert ends a 7-year journey of 4 billion miles through space. This may help scientists unravel mysteries about the solar system or shed light on the origins of life on Earth. After its 8:52 am Mountain Time landing, NASA recovered the mushroom-shaped pod. To avoid putting human lives at risk, the U.S. Space Agency chose to drop the projectile on the massive military base. The charred capsule, which contained gravel and dirt taken from Bennu, was not allowed to remain in place for very long. The capsule was whisked away by helicopter to the Dugway Proving Ground in Colorado, the Army’s most remote and largest facility on the continent. Update: Sep. 24, 2030, 1:32 pm EDT.

Two hours after the capsule had landed in Mountain Time, OSIRIS Rex scientists rolled the charred container to the Dugway Proving Ground clean room for the initial processing. They used a nitrogen gas purge unwanted gases.

NASA hailed the OSIRIS Rex landing, which stands for Origins, Spectral Interpretation Resource Identification and Security Regolith Explorer. It was a historic event. Officials have always been confident that the team will win, but the feat was compared to throwing a perfect touchdown pass across 10 football fields. “And touchdown of OSIRIS Rex sample return capsule,” commented James Tralie during NASA’s broadcast live of the landing. “A journey to the asteroid Bennu, and back again has ended. This marks America’s first ever sample return mission and opens a time capsule into our ancient solar system. “

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About four hours before landing, the flight controllers ordered the spacecraft’s capsule to be dropped while the spacecraft was still 63,000 mile above Earth. They were shooting for an area of 250 square miles below the surface. At its highest speed, the capsule, protected by a heat shield, traveled 27,650 mph, engulfed in a fireball.

Over the past week, rain had sprinkled the region, making the desert floor a bit soft and muddy. The weather was perfect for the capsule scavenger-hunt. It was relatively easy to locate the capsule with low winds and clear skies Sunday morning. The Air Force helped with the recovery operation by using cameras and radar to pinpoint the exact location of the capsule. Airmen were able to spot it at 8:40 am local time, thanks to its glowing tail. Personnel met the package within 30 minutes after its landing, and swept the area for safety. The capsule was intact and its nose was firmly planted on the ground. Scientists wheel the OSIRIS-Rex capsule into a clean room at Dugway Proving Ground in Utah on Sunday morning.

Credit: NASA / Youtube screenshot

Now the hard part begins. Scientists believe it could take weeks or even days before they can determine what is in the sample container. According to estimates based on the speed of the spacecraft, it could hold half a pound or even a cup of rubble. However, no one is sure.


This is the most rare stuff that we have ever seen on Earth.
The significance of the OSIRIS Rex mission in history
NASA has not brought back such a large amount of space souvenirs since 1969-72 when it collected Apollo moon rocks. JAXA is the world leader in this field, having already recovered much smaller samples from the asteroids Itokawa, and Ryugu, twice.

NASA’s $800 million mission could usher in a new age of asteroid exploration, after years of Hayabusa missions. OSIRIS Rex’s return marks the beginning of “asteroid fall,” according to NASA program executive Melissa Morris. This is a series crewless space journeys to small planets that will take place in 2023. NASA’s Psyche mission will be launched in October to a metal-rich asteroid that has never been seen before. In November, Lucy will test its navigation system for asteroid tracking by flying past an asteroid within the inner main belt. JAXA shared a sample of Ryugu with NASA. Credit: NASA/ Robert Markowitz

The agency chose Bennu because it contains a lot of carbon and could be the source of life. The robotic spacecraft was launched in 2016, and reached the asteroid after two years. After collecting data for two years, the probe collected a sample. In 2021 it returned to Earth. Asteroids have a very remote chance of hitting Earth during the 22nd century. It could help future efforts to deflect the space rock, if that becomes necessary.

OSIRIS-Rex team members carried the “bagged” capsule to a helicopter about an hour after its landing to be flown to a clean room for processing Sunday.

Credit: NASA / Youtube screenshot
“This is the rarest stuff we’ve ever had on Earth,” said Jim Garvin, chief scientist at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center.

Asteroids are thought to be the leftover rubble from our solar system’s formation 4.6 billion years ago. These ancient space rocks, or “grandfather rock,” as one OSIRIS Rex team member called them, could give clues to how the solar system evolved. Want more science

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What scientists want to learn from Bennu

Scientists are poised to chip away at big questions with the new asteroid sample, like how do organic materials originate, and why did life emerge on Earth?

Japan sharing Ryugu sample with NASA

A helicopter carries the landed capsule with a long line to a clean room for initial processing.
Credit: NASA / Youtube screenshot

Through the spacecraft’s images, the team saw so-called “hydrothermal mineral deposits” on Bennu that they believe may have occurred early in solar system history, said Dante Lauretta, the team’s principal scientist, based at the University of Arizona. These long salty veins could be a hydrothermal system like the one at Earth’s mid ocean ridge. Geologists believe this is the environment in which life on Earth may have started. This material is not found in the Ryugu meteorite from Japan or any other on Earth.

Lauretta asked, “How do you get from a carbon molecule like methane (a natural gas) to amino acids that make up proteins or nucleic acids which are the genetic material?”

NASA carrying capsule to helicopter

The OSIRIS-Rex capsule will spend the night in Utah before being transported to NASA’s Johnson Space Center in Houston.
Credit: NASA / Youtube screenshot

His dream discovery would be evidence of amino acids starting to link together to form a chain, known as peptides, signaling protein evolution. “It would be a fantastic science result if that were to happen,” Lauretta stated. Bennu was nicknamed “the trickster asteroids” during OSIRIS Rex’s spaceflight. Scientists thought the spacecraft would have encountered pebbles when it touched down three years ago to collect a sample. Instead, closeup images showed boulders and a surface that acted like a plastic ball pit.

Scientists say it may take days — perhaps weeks — before they have a grasp on what’s in the sample canister.

NASA observing Bennu asteroid

Credit: Andrew Ryan / University of Arizona
Hundreds of scientists and 60 laboratories around the world will study bits of the sample. The first stop for the rocks will be NASA Johnson Space Center, in Houston. A specially designed glovebox and clean room are waiting to receive them. The sample will be transported on a C-17 Monday. About 20 minutes after dropping its capsule, the spacecraft fired thrusters in order to avoid Earth. It then officially started a new OSIRIS Apex mission to another asteroid. If everything goes according to plan, the spacecraft should reach Apophis by 2029. Scientists hope to have the lid opened on OSIRIS Rex’s canister by Monday or Tuesday.

Lauretta stated that “a big part of our job is to get this material to the scientific community to be studied.” This is a wonderful gift for the world. “