Soil from an asteroid was brought to Earth: what scientists learned from this sample
The American Osiris-Rex probe delivered soil from the asteroid Bennu to Earth. On September 24, the sample capsule landed in the desert in Utah. The broadcast was conducted by NASA, reports CNN.
This gave scientists the opportunity to learn more about the origins of the solar system. A piece of massive space rock could collide with our planet in the future. This is the first time the agency has mined an asteroid specimen.
Seven years after its launch into space, on September 24, the Osiris-Rex spacecraft flew past Earth to return a pristine sample from the near-Earth asteroid Bennu.
Osiris was launched on an Atlas V rocket from Cape Canaveral in Florida in September 2016. The device traveled more than six billion kilometers, reaching Bennu in 2018. First, it examined a 500-meter asteroid in orbit, and after 2,5 years it received a sample of its soil, placed in the return capsule. It was sent to Earth in 2021, reports "Radio Ozadlik”.
The spacecraft dropped the sample capsule from a distance of 102 kilometers above the Earth's surface in the early morning of September 000. It contained approximately 24 grams of asteroid rocks and soil. The sample parachuted into the Utah Department of Defense's test and training facility about 250 minutes after reentry—several minutes ahead of schedule.
“Congratulations to the Osiris-Rex team. You did it,” said NASA Administrator Bill Nelson. “The capsule brought back something extraordinary: the largest sample of an asteroid ever obtained on Earth. This mission proves that NASA is doing big things, things that inspire, things that bring us together. This was not an impossible mission. The impossible became possible."
Osiris-Rex continues its journey through the solar system - the spacecraft has already set off to take a detailed look at another asteroid named Apophis.
What happened after landing
Four helicopters flew rescue and exploration teams to the landing site and conducted assessments to ensure the capsule was not damaged in any way, said Rich Burns, Osiris-Rex project manager. The team confirmed that the capsule was not damaged upon landing.
Teams that had been preparing for the event for months took the capsule as soon as it was safe, said Sandra Freund, Osiris-Rex program manager at Lockheed Martin Space.
The initial recovery team, equipped with protective gloves and masks, made sure the capsule was cool enough to touch, Burns said. The capsule reached a temperature of 2760 degrees Celsius during reentry.
The team also made sure the capsule's battery didn't rupture or leak toxic substances. The scientific team collected samples from the landing site, including air, dust and dirt particles.
“One of the key scientific goals of Osiris-Rex is to study the pristine sample. No extraneous materials interfere with our investigation during sample analysis,” said Dante Lauretta, Osiris-Rex principal investigator at the University of Arizona in Tucson. “As unlikely as it may be, we want to make sure that any materials in Utah that could interact with the sample are well documented.”
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Lauretta has worked on the mission for nearly twenty years and remembers when it was part of an idea presented to NASA. Lauretta was present every step of the way, including assembling and installing the capsule on the spacecraft before launch. And on September 24, he was one of the first to approach the capsule after it landed.
“It was like meeting an old friend you haven’t seen for a long time,” he said. “I really wanted to hug her.” One of the key moments for me was to see this. I knew we did it, that we got through it. As incredible as it may have seemed many years ago, it happened.”
The helicopter transported the sample to a temporary cleanroom near the landing site. In this space, a team of curators will perform a nitrogen procedure called purging. This prevents any particles from the earth's atmosphere from entering the sample container and contaminating it. Large parts of the capsule will be removed.
What can a sample show?
Details about the sample will be revealed in a NASA broadcast from Johnson Space Center on October 11.
Scientists will analyze the rocks and soil over the next two years in a special clean room at the Johnson Space Center that only six people have access to. The sample will also be separated and sent to laboratories around the world, including mission partners at the Canadian Space Agency and the Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency. About 70% of the sample will remain intact during storage, so future generations with better technology will be able to learn even more than is possible now.
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“Some steps leading to this long-awaited analysis may be delayed, but the sample will remain protected and safe despite any disruptions to the schedule,” said Laurie Glaze, director of NASA's Planetary Science Division. “The sample has been waiting over 4 billion years for people to study it, and if it takes us a little longer, I think we’ll be fine.”
Scientists believe that carbonaceous asteroids such as Bennu crashed into Earth early in the planet's formation, delivering elements such as water to Earth.
“Scientists believe that asteroid Bennu is one of the oldest materials in the solar system, created in large dying stars and supernova explosions,” Glaze said. “And for this reason, NASA is investing in these small-body missions to improve our understanding of how our solar system formed and how it has evolved.”
But the sample could also provide insight into Bennu, which could collide with Earth in the future.
It is critical to learn more about the population of near-Earth asteroids that may be on a possible collision course with our planet. A better understanding of their composition and orbits is key to predicting which asteroids may approach Earth closest and when. This is also important for developing methods to deflect these asteroids based on their composition.
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