NASA’s Historic Mission: The Arrival of the First-Ever Asteroid Sample on Earth

Published at : 24 Sep 2023 12:55 PM (IST)

On September 24, 2023, a momentous event is set to unfold in the world of space exploration. NASA’s OSIRIS-REx spacecraft, which embarked on a daring mission to collect a sample from the near-Earth asteroid Bennu, will make its long-awaited return to our planet. In this article, we delve into the significance of this historic mission and what we can expect as we welcome the first-ever asteroid sample on Earth.

FILE PHOTO: This mosaic image of asteroid Bennu, composed of 12 PolyCam images collected on December 2, 2018 by the OSIRIS-REx spacecraft from a range of 15 miles (24 km). NASA/Goddard/University of Arizona/Handout via REUTERS/File Photo

A Mission of Scientific Discovery

The OSIRIS-REx mission, which stands for “Origins, Spectral Interpretation, Resource Identification, Security, Regolith Explorer,” was launched by NASA on September 8, 2016. Its primary objective was to rendezvous with the near-Earth asteroid Bennu, collect a sample of regolith (the asteroid’s surface material), and safely return it to Earth.

The mission was not only a technological marvel but also a scientific endeavor of great importance. Asteroids like Bennu are remnants from the early solar system, offering a glimpse into the conditions and building blocks that gave rise to our celestial neighborhood and, ultimately, life on Earth.

The Journey to Bennu

OSIRIS-REx’s journey to Bennu was nothing short of extraordinary. After a two-year journey through space, the spacecraft arrived at the asteroid in December 2018. Over the next two years, it meticulously surveyed Bennu, mapping its surface and studying its composition.

One of the most critical tasks was the sample collection itself. In October 2020, OSIRIS-REx executed a “touch-and-go” maneuver, briefly making contact with Bennu’s surface to release a burst of nitrogen gas that stirred up regolith, which was then captured by the spacecraft’s collector head. The mission team successfully collected more than 60 grams of material, making it one of the largest collections of extraterrestrial material since the Apollo moon missions.

The Journey Home

Having accomplished its mission at Bennu, OSIRIS-REx set its course for Earth. The return journey has been a patient and calculated one, ensuring the safe transport of the precious asteroid sample. On September 24, 2023, after traveling nearly 2.3 billion kilometers (1.4 billion miles), the spacecraft will perform a high-speed reentry into Earth’s atmosphere over the Utah Test and Training Range.

As OSIRIS-REx descends, it will jettison the sample return capsule, which will go on to land softly under parachutes at the Utah range. Scientists and mission control personnel will be on standby to recover the capsule quickly, preserving the integrity of the asteroid sample.

The Scientific Potential

The arrival of the Bennu sample on Earth is an event that has scientists around the world buzzing with anticipation. This pristine, untouched material contains secrets about the early solar system and the processes that led to the formation of planets and the ingredients necessary for life.

Scientists will scrutinize the Bennu sample using a wide range of analytical techniques, from spectrometry to microscopy. They hope to learn more about the origins of water and organic molecules on Earth and potentially gain insights into the processes that contributed to the development of life.

A Testament to Human Ingenuity

The OSIRIS-REx mission and its successful return exemplify the remarkable achievements of human space exploration. It showcases our ability to navigate, rendezvous with, and collect samples from distant celestial bodies. This mission provides valuable experience and knowledge that will be essential for future endeavors, including asteroid deflection strategies in case a hazardous asteroid threatens Earth.

As we eagerly await the return of OSIRIS-REx and its precious cargo from Bennu, we are reminded once again of the boundless curiosity and determination that drive our exploration of the cosmos. The arrival of the first-ever asteroid sample on Earth is not just a scientific triumph; it is a testament to the human spirit of discovery and the pursuit of knowledge that knows no bounds.

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