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.