NASA’s OSIRIS-REx mission prepares to capture sample of 4.5-billion-year-old asteroid

NASA’s OSIRIS-REx spacecraft returns to Earth on 2020 October 20 with dust and rock samples collected from the asteroid Bennu. The model capsule has been traveling through space carrying a half-pound object since its liftoff from the asteroid in May 2021. It will be released in the Utah desert this fall.

To ensure the capsule’s safe recovery, a dedicated team of scientists and engineers from NASA, Lockheed Martin and the University of Arizona recently gathered in Littleton on June 27 and 28 to conduct a rescue exercise. The team conducted sampling exercises to create a comprehensive library of environmental components around the capsule. They collected samples of soil, air, organic matter, and more, and analyzed possible contamination or changes in ancient asteroid material once they returned to Earth.

The teams will conduct two more rehearsals, each designed to mimic increasingly realistic conditions, at the Utah Army Training Range, where the model capsule is expected to land in September 2023.

The Bennu sample contains intact, ancient material from the asteroid, which holds valuable clues about the origins of our solar system. It may contain organic compounds, the building blocks of life as we know it on Earth, which could help shed light on the early stages of our solar system, when our sun and planets formed from a swirling cloud of gas and dust.

One of the primary objectives of the OSIRIS-REx mission is to unravel the mysteries surrounding the evolution of organic molecules throughout the history of our Solar System. This asteroid material is of immense value to researchers because it is protected from Earth’s environment. Unlike meteorites that fall to the ground and are exposed to terrestrial conditions, the sample from Bennu remains unobstructed in space, making it an invaluable resource for studying conditions in the early Solar System.

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OSIRIS-REx will be the latest in a series of missions aimed at collecting samples from space and delivering them to Earth. This practice of recovering extraterrestrial samples traces its origins to NASA’s historic Apollo 11 mission in 1969, the first time astronauts landed on the Moon.

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