On October 10, 2023, NASA unveiled the results of its OSIRIS-REx mission, which collected the largest asteroid sample ever returned from space. This event provided the world with a glimpse of the precious cargo brought back from the asteroid Bennu.
The mission has not only expanded our understanding of the solar system’s early days but also holds the potential to reveal insights into the origins of life on Earth.
The mission’s primary objective was to rendezvous with the near-Earth asteroid Bennu, collect samples from its surface, and safely return them to Earth for analysis.
Bennu, the objective of the OSIRIS-REx mission, is a small, carbon-rich asteroid that serves as a time capsule from the early solar system. Its chemistry and mineralogy have remained virtually unchanged since its formation some 4.5 billion years ago.
This makes Bennu an interesting subject of study, as it can give vital clues about the origins and development of rocky planets like Earth and the potential emergence of life.
In October 2020, OSIRIS-REx impacted the world forever when it successfully collected a sample of material from Bennu’s surface.
This accomplishment denoted a huge achievement in space exploration, as it was the third-ever asteroid sample-return mission, but with a key difference – the amount of material collected.
OSIRIS-REx gathered an impressive 250 grams (half a pound) of asteroid material, in contrast to the 5.4 grams returned by Japan’s Hayabusa2 mission.
Researchers chose Bennu for its rich organic composition, believing that similar asteroids may have delivered organic building blocks to Earth, potentially playing a crucial role in the planet’s early development.
Bennu’s orbit, which intersects with Earth’s, made it a more accessible target for sample return compared to the asteroid belt situated between Mars and Jupiter.
While OSIRIS-REx’s sample collection was a resounding success, it was not without its challenges. During the collection process, a flap meant to seal the collected material got wedged open with a piece of rock, allowing some of the finer material to flow out of the collector.
This unexpected occurrence, however, turned out to be a fortunate “problem” to have, as it provided more material than initially expected.
In addition to the pristine asteroid material, OSIRIS-REx also discovered “bonus particles,” described as black dust and debris coating the sample collector. These unanticipated findings have further heightened the excitement surrounding the mission.
The data gathered by the spacecraft during its mission revealed intriguing aspects of Bennu’s composition.
Scientists found that the particles making up its exterior were so loosely packed that a person might sink into the surface, much like stepping into a pit of plastic balls.
This unexpected characteristic has raised questions about the asteroid’s structure and formation. Moreover, understanding Bennu’s composition has practical implications.
While the chances of Bennu impacting Earth through the mid-2100s are low, the odds rise significantly to approximately 1 in 1750 between then and the year 2300.
Therefore, gaining insights into Bennu’s composition is vital for potential future asteroid deflection strategies. The return of the OSIRIS-REx sample to Earth marked the beginning of an extensive phase of scientific analysis.
The precious asteroid material is now being meticulously analyzed in a specialized clean room at NASA’s Johnson Space Center in Houston. This collaborative effort involves scientists from around the world who will study the samples in over 60 laboratories.
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