The payload from Bennu is expected to be substantial. Scientists hope to secure about half a pound (250 grams) of space pebbles and dust.
This Sunday is not just another day for space enthusiasts. A NASA spacecraft is set to fly past Earth and bestow upon it a precious cargo—possibly over a cupful of rubble from the asteroid Bennu. This marks the finale of an intricate dance that spanned billions of miles over seven years.
As the Osiris-Rex spacecraft takes its leave for another celestial rendezvous, its sample capsule will make a dramatic entrance, parachuting into the Utah desert.
The payload from Bennu is expected to be substantial. Scientists hope to secure about half a pound (250 grams) of space pebbles and dust. This dwarfs the mere teaspoon quantity that Japan retrieved from two other asteroids, a feat unmatched by any other nation. These samples are akin to time capsules, shedding light on the early days of our solar system and possibly the origins of life on Earth.
An Odyssey Filled with Surprises
Dante Lauretta, the mission’s chief scientist from the University of Arizona, reflected on the mission’s numerous heart-stopping moments. From a unique touchdown on Bennu to a malfunctioning lid that caused sample spillage, the journey has been nothing short of thrilling.
Launching in 2016 with a price tag of $1 billion, Osiris-Rex reached Bennu two years later. It spent a considerable time scouting the asteroid before successfully collecting samples. Some challenges arose during collection, but the team quickly secured the precious material.
Bennu, identified in 1999, could be a fragment of a larger asteroid resulting from a space collision. Orbiting the sun every 14 months, this space rock might be holding remnants from the solar system’s formative era. With a potential collision course with Earth in the distant future, the studies from Osiris-Rex may offer insights on asteroid deflection.
The Sample’s Grand Entrance
From a staggering 63,000 miles out, Osiris-Rex will dispatch the sample capsule toward Earth. After its release, the main spacecraft will divert to its next adventure. The capsule’s descent will culminate with a gentle touchdown in Utah, where experts will promptly transport the samples to NASA’s Johnson Space Center in Houston.
A specially designed lab at Johnson Space Center will be the new home for these asteroid samples. Ensuring no cross-contamination, these specimens will be in the esteemed company of Apollo-era moon rocks and other celestial collectibles.
Dubbed “Asteroid Autumn” by NASA, this period will witness multiple asteroid missions reaching pivotal stages. While Osiris-Rex concludes its current task, another asteroid mission is set to launch, followed by the Lucy spacecraft’s anticipated asteroid flyby.
While NASA has had its share of sample missions, including those from the moon by Apollo astronauts, this return from Bennu stands out. Despite some past hiccups, like the compromised solar wind particles in 2004, NASA’s recent endeavors join the ranks of Japan, the Soviet Union, and China in bringing extraterrestrial samples to Earth.
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