The nation’s first intact asteroid sample — protected by a heat shield invented in Silicon Valley — landed Sunday morning in Utah’s Great Salt Lake Desert, where it was greeted by a team of NASA scientists hoping to study its chemical composition.
The sample was taken from Bennu, an asteroid 500 meters in diameter. The process took years: NASA’s OSIRIS-REx spacecraft launched in 2016, taking just over two years to arrive at the asteroid. From 2019 to 2021, the spacecraft took rock samples, dust and other measurements from the asteroid – and now, after a 1.2 billion mile return trip, pieces of Bennu, which is 4.5 billion years ago, finally landed on Earth.
“Bennu is a remnant fragment of the tumultuous formation of the solar system,” NASA said on X, formerly Twitter, around 8 a.m. “The samples will help scientists better understand the origins of our solar system and could hold clues about the role asteroids may have played in bringing life-generating compounds to Earth.
After being preserved in space for millennia, NASA said Bennu “is a time capsule from the early solar system” and could possibly hold clues to the origin of life. Portions of Bennu’s rocks and dust will soon be distributed to more than 200 scientists on the NASA team and around the world, the agency announced Sunday morning.
Bennu, NASA said, is the size of a small, constantly rotating mountain. The spacecraft is about the mass of an SUV – and it hit Bennu’s surface at about 0.25 miles per hour. Experts spent Sunday morning allaying public safety concerns, such as whether or not the sample — which weighs 8.8 ounces in total — could contaminate life on Earth. The resounding answer: no.
“We’re actually more concerned about contamination of the sample with terrestrial biology,” Dante Lauretta, principal investigator of OSIRIS-REx at the University of Arizona, said during a press briefing. Sunday afternoon. “One of the main goals of this program is to try to understand whether carbon-rich asteroids like Bennu delivered the compounds that could have led to the origin of life on our planet?
Unlike the typical arrival of meteorites – portions of asteroids that fall to Earth over time – this part of Bennu will be in pristine condition, spared the fiery and violent descent through Earth’s atmosphere that meteorites experience naked. This is due to the design of the sample capture operation and the thermally shielded capsule made of a metallic material lighter than water. Even though the capsule was charred, that was expected, Lauretta said, given that the object was passing through Earth’s atmosphere at a speed of 27,000 miles per hour.
“This capsule literally had a personality and it understood the mission,” said Tim Prizer, chief engineer for deep space exploration at aerospace company Lockheed Martin, which built OSIRIS-REx. “It was just beautiful.”
On September 25, the sample will be transported to Texas. Scientists from the United States, Japan, Canada and elsewhere will then study the asteroid over the next two years — a process, NASA said, that will involve analyzing materials as small as a grain of grain. sand. The space agency will keep at least 70 percent of the sample at the Johnson Space Center (JSC) in Houston, where it will be preserved for further research by current and future scientists around the world.
“Tuesday morning we hope to be able to open this canister,” Lauretta said. “We have a plan to sample this dust, to immediately access the scientific instruments at JSC, just to say: have we brought back what we thought, or is this something completely different? Knowing Bennu, it might be a bit of both.
About 20 minutes after OSIRIS-REx released the sample back to Earth, it flew off to its new mission. This time, the spacecraft will focus on Apophis, an asteroid twice the size of Bennu that is expected to come within 20,000 miles of Earth in 2029. That’s only a tenth of the distance between Earth and the Moon, said NASA – and now – renamed OSIRIS-APEX will be ready to study the asteroid’s orbit, rotation speed and surface changes when that happens.
“While this may seem like the end of an incredible chapter, it’s actually just the beginning of another,” Lauretta said. “We now have an unprecedented opportunity to analyze these samples and delve deeper into the secrets of our solar system.”
(Science journalist Lisa Krieger contributed to this story.)
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