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NASA’s initial asteroid samples reach Earth after spacecraft release

NASA's samples reach Earth after spacecraft release

After a remarkable seven-year journey through the depths of space, NASA’s Osiris-Rex spacecraft achieved a historic milestone as it gently parachuted into the Utah desert, bringing back the agency’s first asteroid samples. This momentous event marked a significant triumph for both the scientific community and space exploration enthusiasts worldwide.

How it happened

The Osiris-Rex spacecraft executed a daring flyby of Earth before releasing its precious cargo, a sample capsule, from a distance of 63,000 miles (approximately 100,000 kilometers). This small, well-traveled capsule made its descent, landing on a remote expanse of military land just four hours later, while the mothership embarked on its next mission to explore yet another asteroid. The announcement of the successful touchdown was met with exhilaration by the Mission Recovery Operations team. They couldn’t contain their excitement, especially since the landing occurred three minutes earlier than anticipated. However, there was an unexpected twist— the orange striped parachute deployed at a height approximately four times higher than initially projected, at around 20,000 feet (approximately 6,100 meters). This was determined based on the deceleration rate.

A successful touchdown

The most critical aspect of this triumphant return was the pristine condition of the capsule. It remained intact and secure, ensuring that the invaluable 4.5-billion-year-old samples collected from the asteroid Bennu remained uncontaminated. Within a mere two hours of touching down, the capsule found itself inside a temporary clean room at the Defense Department’s Utah Test and Training Range, transported there by helicopter.

The sealed sample canister is scheduled for a journey to NASA’s Johnson Space Center in Houston, where it will undergo careful examination and analysis in a newly designed laboratory. Remarkably, this facility already houses hundreds of pounds (kilograms) of moon rocks collected by the Apollo astronauts.

The Excitement

Dante Lauretta, the mission’s lead scientist from the University of Arizona, expressed his excitement, stating, “We can’t wait to crack into it. For me, the real science is just beginning.” He intends to personally accompany the samples on their journey to Texas. Lori Glaze, NASA’s planetary science division director, emphasized the long-lasting scientific value of these samples, saying, “Those are going to be a treasure for scientific analysis for years and years and years to come.”

U.S Follows After Japan

While scientists estimate that the capsule contains at least a cup of Bennu’s carbon-rich asteroid material, the precise quantity will only be confirmed after the container is opened, which is expected to occur in the next day or two. Some of the material inadvertently spilled and drifted away during the collection process three years ago when the spacecraft scooped up more material than anticipated. Japan remains the only other nation to have successfully collected samples from an asteroid, albeit a much smaller amount, equivalent to about a teaspoon, during two separate asteroid missions.

The collection

The pebbles and dust that arrived on Earth represent the most extensive collection of extraterrestrial material from beyond the moon. These preserved building blocks from the early solar system will provide invaluable insights into the formation of Earth and life itself, offering a unique glimpse into conditions approximately 4.5 billion years ago, according to NASA Administrator Bill Nelson.

Osiris-Rex embarked on its mission in 2016, embarking on a $1 billion endeavor. It reached its destination, Bennu, in 2018 and skillfully gathered rubble from the small, spherical space rock in 2020, utilizing a specialized vacuum arm. By the time it completed its journey, the spacecraft had traversed an astonishing 4 billion miles (approximately 6.2 billion kilometers).

During a subsequent news conference held several hours after the successful landing, Dante Lauretta admitted to shedding tears of joy upon learning that the capsule’s main parachute had deployed as planned. He was overwhelmed with emotion upon arriving at the landing site, expressing a strong desire to embrace the capsule, which, despite its sooty exterior, remained undamaged and unaltered.

Securing the Capsule

Lockheed Martin’s flight controllers, stationed in Colorado, joined in the celebration, standing and applauding the touchdown. NASA’s cameras transmitted images of the capsule, charred but upright on the sandy terrain, with its parachute detached and strewn nearby. The recovery team swiftly descended via helicopters to secure the capsule. Lauretta gleefully recounted, “Boy, did we stick that landing. It didn’t move, it didn’t roll, it didn’t bounce. It just made a tiny little divot in the Utah soil.”

Daniel Brown, a British astronomer not directly involved in the mission, expressed great optimism regarding the scientific potential of NASA’s largest sample return since the Apollo moon missions over half a century ago. He highlighted the significance of these asteroid samples, explaining that they could help humanity inch closer to understanding early chemical compositions, water formation, and the molecules essential for life.

Brian May, Queen’s lead guitarist, who also happens to be an astrophysicist, conveyed his heartfelt sentiments through a prerecorded message. Even though one of the Osiris-Rex team members was stuck in England rehearsing for a concert tour, he expressed his solidarity and excitement, stating, “My heart’s there with you as this precious sample is recovered. Happy Sample Return Day.”

What it contains

Engineers involved in the mission estimated that the canister contains approximately 250 grams (approximately 8.82 ounces) of material from Bennu, with a margin of error of plus or minus 100 grams (approximately 3.53 ounces). Even at the lower end of this estimate, the mission comfortably surpasses its minimum requirement. Nicole Lunning, NASA’s lead curator, explained that it will take several weeks to determine the precise quantity of material retrieved from Bennu. NASA has plans to host a public event in October to showcase the sample and share the excitement of this historic achievement with the world.

Bennu, currently orbiting the sun at a distance of 50 million miles (approximately 81 million kilometers) from Earth, boasts dimensions roughly equivalent to one-third of a mile (approximately one-half of a kilometer) across. Its size is akin to the Empire State Building, although its shape resembles that of a spinning top. Scientists believe Bennu to be a fragment of a much larger asteroid that broke apart.

The Asteroid – Comprehensive Analysis

During a two-year survey, Osiris-Rex conducted a comprehensive analysis of Bennu, revealing it to be a conglomerate of rubble filled with boulders and craters. The asteroid’s surface was surprisingly loose, causing the spacecraft’s vacuum arm to sink several feet (approximately 0.5 meters) into Bennu as it collected an unexpectedly substantial amount of material.

These close observations of Bennu are anticipated to be invaluable in the late 21st century when the asteroid is expected to approach Earth dangerously close, possibly even posing a collision threat. The data collected by Osiris-Rex will be crucial for any future asteroid-deflection efforts. Osiris-Rex is already pursuing its next target, the asteroid Apophis, with an anticipated rendezvous in 2029.

A great leap forward

This successful mission marks NASA’s third sample return from deep space using robotic missions. The Genesis spacecraft returned bits of solar wind in 2004, albeit with some compromise due to a failed parachute and a ground impact. The Stardust spacecraft successfully delivered comet dust in 2006.

NASA’s plans to return samples from Mars are currently on hold following an independent review board’s criticism of cost and complexity. Nevertheless, the Perseverance rover has spent the past two years collecting core samples on Mars for eventual transport back to Earth, representing the next frontier in space exploration.

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