Sunday, September 24, 2023

Samples from Asteroid Bennu Brought to Earth Today

NASA's OSIRIS-REx probe's samples taken from the asteroid Bennu arrived in Utah today and are in the process of being transported to a lab in Texas for the detailed analysis the sample is intended to get. 

NASA's OSIRIS-REx mission brought back the largest unspoiled sample of material ever returned to Earth from beyond the Moon, probably on the order of about 250 grams, or roughly 8 ounces, according to estimates. The spacecraft collected the samples from asteroid Bennu, a loosely-bound rocky world about the size of a small mountain, during a touch-and-go landing in October 2020.

This is the first asteroid return mission for the US and the third in world history after two missions carried out by Japan, returning in 2010 and 2020.  

I've done a few blog posts on this mission as the last couple of months have passed by, the first post on the last of July, talking about the involvement of astrophysicist Brian May, better known as the virtuoso guitarist for the British rock group Queen and the next article posted on the fifth of September talking about preparations for today's recovery.  While it's tempting to consider this the height of the mission, it's more like the midway point. 

At the end of its 4-billion-mile celestial journey, the OSIRIS-REx mothership spacecraft released a 32-inch-wide (81-centimeter) sample return capsule early Sunday as it darted toward Earth. More than four hours later, the capsule landed at the US Air Force's Utah Test and Training Range southwest of Salt Lake City at 8:52 am local time (10:52 am EDT or 14:52 UTC).

Scientists working on NASA's $1 billion OSIRIS-REx mission watched anxiously as the capsule came back to Earth, braving temperatures of more than 5,000 degrees Fahrenheit after slamming into the atmosphere at 27,650 mph (12.3 kilometers per second). 

The recovered capsule on the ground in Utah this morning - Utah time.  Photo credit: NASA/Keegan Barber

You see, the spacecraft was passing Earth on its way to the asteroid Apophis.  After releasing the landing capsule, the OSIRIS-REx mothership fired thrusters to steer away from its collision course with Earth. The spacecraft then soared a few hundred miles above the planet, as it flew by.  

This next target, named Apophis, is an elongated asteroid with an average diameter of about 1,100 feet (340 meters). It became one of the Solar System's most famous—infamous?—asteroids soon after its discovery in 2004. At that time, preliminary tracking of the asteroid indicated there was a small chance it could impact Earth on April 13, 2029. Since then, more refined data on the orbit of Apophis have eliminated any chance it will strike Earth for at least the next 100 years.

The next phase of the mission, called OSIRIS-Apophis Explorer (OSIRIS-APEX), will take the spacecraft on several more loops around the Sun. Soon after Apophis passes less than 20,000 miles (32,000 kilometers) from Earth in 2029, the OSIRIS-APEX spacecraft will enter orbit around the asteroid for more than a year of close-up observations. 

In the immediate future, though, we have this:

The recovery team delivered the sample return capsule to a temporary clean room at the US Army's Dugway Proving Ground, where scientists will prepare it for shipment to a permanent curation facility in Houston. Image Credit: NASA TV

The clean room facility is vital for handling the samples and preventing contamination of the samples by Earth life forms. 

“We’ve been studying meteorites that we think look like Bennu, so I fully expect to find amino acids, the building blocks of proteins, sugars, an energy source for life, nucleobases, parts of the genetic code," said Danny Glavin, a senior scientist for sample return at NASA. "So we’ll see what Bennu tells us. One thing I’ve learned from this mission is (there have been) so many surprises. Sample analysis, probably, won’t be an exception. We're going to be surprised.

“One of the challenges with all meteorites is they get contaminated," Glavin said. "You’re looking for the building blocks of life, and the contamination really makes it hard to tease out what formed in space. That’s why this is so special, these Bennu samples (with) pristine materials. We’re going to be able to trust the organic results from these samples.”

If you grew up watching sci-fi movies where some thing collected in space starts killing everybody and everything around it, you may be thinking of contamination from the other direction - outward from the capsule not contaminating what's in the capsule.  Elsewhere in the article, one of the mission scientists states that Bennu has been in its current state longer than Earth has been here.  In the hostile environment of space, it seems unlikely a dangerous organism could survive that long.


  1. Old things can cause a lot of damage. I mean how old is Bernie Sanders?

  2. Stuck the Landing!!!! Be real interesting to see exactly what they captured/collected.

  3. Amino acids, sugars. genetic code ... ya sure, we're made of "star stuff', as Sagan once remarked.
    Yet, the images from the Webb supposedly show only a few elements are seen in the galaxies.

    Anyhow, the OSIRIS missions are so complex with such precision that it is difficult to comprehend.
    One complexity is how they were able to pinpoint the drop so precisely. Not just on land in the U.S. but that particular area in the SW UT desert.

    1. I thought the reference to the amino acids and genetic material was way over the top. I'm thinking the reporter got it out place and the guy was really referring to stuff found on meteorites that have hit the surface here on Earth, more commonly known as contamination.

    2. I think SiG is exactly correct. Reporters are terrible, just terrible, at anything technical. This is why the (very few) good science bloggers/journalists are so valuable.

      Could be worse, could be Kamala "Hump Me" Harris writing it: "Space is very high. If you float up far enough, there is lots of room to move around, which is why we call it 'space'. In space, it's a long way to the ground, which is how we know it is very high."

    3. M
      Sounds like that Harris space "quote" was written by Chat GPT in the style of a five yr old

  4. “One complexity is how they were able to pinpoint the drop so precisely. Not just on land in the U.S. but that particular area in the SW UT desert.”

    Yep, and that’s just the easy bit, they’re combining that trajectory approach with the mothership flyby of Earth to rendezvous with Apophis in a couple of years. Hats off to extraordinary orbital mechanics team at NASA!

    1. That's what I mean but wanted to avoid getting long winded about.

      So, they launch a probe to go orbit an asteroid which orbits and asteroid, both of which have just barely enough gravity to hold together. Land the probe without knocking things out of alignment, take a scoop, launch, intercecpt, but not bisect, da earf, send the sample to earf, than skip off to intercept another asteroid to take a sample, then return to earf.

      I cannot comprehend what it takes to deliver that level of celestial pachinko.

    2. And do that while avoiding the old and new space junk which have accreted sinch the original launch. And somehow pack enough fuel for the add-on mission.

      This mission, even if it fails its objectives at anytime forward from now, should win major awards.

  5. Clean room contamination with uncovered eyes scattering their DNA in the room's air currents? One boggles if the camera was sanitized also.

    During a total knee we were in full spacesuits zipped from the back with air-conditioned air hoses for surgery on immune compromised folks. I've seen chip manufacturers in better clean room procedures.

    Maybe I misunderstand clean room procedures.

    1. Not likely, as one who has seen "dust bunnies" under the equipment in the room where HST was being built.

    2. There are levels of "clean". The best do space suits, as you say, but just having all hard surfaces and a good air filter is also called a "clean room". Here's a good description of the standards:

    3. I worked on a few satellites but only one where I was in a clean room every day. It was the dirtiest class in that page Malatrope links to (100,000) and being Florida we joked that the ants walking through were considered a single particle against our budget.

      More seriously, it's important to know that the room pictured wasn't the actual clean room, just "cleaner than the landing site" and the container that's holding the sample was vacuum sealed. The cover was put on in the perfect vacuum of deep space. While I don't know, I expect the pictured recovery vehicle will be washed pretty thoroughly before they open it.

  6. What if it is all a lie a total fake job?
    I mean what better way to launder money? I come to believe it is this way with a myriad of "federal" programs. More and more over my lifetime "federal" programs have increasingly grown further and further away from any thing having to do with we the people. Aside from what they can not risk causing an explosive reaction, such as stealing what remains of social security funds and tax returns, thiugh word thru the grape vine is they have begun to deny outright returns to a small percentage of we the people, even this mere pittance, they have to steal, and their acomplises in the global banking regime have for decades siphoned off pennies and dimes from hindredes of milions of bank accounts, nickling and diming humanity to death, this whole space program is like globullshitcolding, like the ukraine thing, vast systematic money laundering operations, call me a nasty cinic, thats just ok with me, but i know what i see, and after watching Alan Shepard to these so called probes, watching the Rothchillians fund and control fake scintest/engineer musk and spacex its not just conspiracy theory, it is the exception anything about nasa and related represents a tiny fraction of the wealth of our nation is actual real aerospace program. It strikes me as a perfect method for the special bloodline families to keep on using us regular good folks as slaves as they have for the last few thousand years.
    I mean they thru technology and black money magic essentialy stole near .999 oercent if our collective wealth leaving jst enough to keep up the illusion we are free beings when that is the furthest from the truth of everything.
    This probe thing is theater, just as all war is theater, mikitary theater they call it. Everything they tell us to believe is a lie and we eat it with a spoon tied to our balls and chains. They created a whole planet of slaves to serve them.
    Even though, it appears their ruse is collapsing, their institutional order of human wealth strip mining is failing.

  7. Anonymous, whoever you are, tell the orderlies to cut off your internet access.

    1. Calling Nurse Ratched. Calling Nurse Ratched!

    2. Oh, I don't know. I rather enjoyed it. Maybe this whole charade will put Disney back on an even keel. I mean, the money is the right amount, yes?