After a complex multi-year mission spanning over 200 million miles, NASA has finally unlocked the hidden secrets contained within the precious sample collected from the asteroid Bennu. This marks a monumental achievement for the agency and provides scientists with an unprecedented opportunity to analyze pristine extraterrestrial material.
Background: OSIRIS-REx Mission to Collect Asteroid Sample
The epic journey began in September 2016 with the launch of the OSIRIS-REx spacecraft. The ambitious mission: travel to the near-Earth asteroid Bennu, map its surface in detail, collect a sample from its rocky terrain, and deliver it safely back to Earth.
Two years later, OSIRIS-REx pulled into orbit around Bennu, making it the smallest celestial object ever to be orbited by a spacecraft. After conducting over a year of detailed surveying and mapping, the team identified the sampling site – a rocky area named Nightingale.
On October 20, 2020, OSIRIS-REx descended to the asteroid’s surface and its robotic arm briefly touched down for just seconds to collect loose rubble and dust stirred up by firing nitrogen gas. The spacecraft later confirmed it had collected far more material than the minimum requirement.
Successful Delivery of Precious Cargo to Earth
With its precious cargo secured, OSIRIS-REx began the long return journey to Earth in 2021. The sample canister detached from the main spacecraft in late 2023 and entered Earth’s atmosphere on January 12, 2024. After a precise set of maneuvers to slow its descent, it softly landed via parachute at the Utah Test and Training Range.
This marked the first time a U.S. spacecraft has collected a sample from an asteroid and delivered it safely to our planet.
First Glimpse of Asteroid Treasure
The capsule containing the pristine samples was transported to NASA’s Johnson Space Center and placed in a specially designed clean room for preliminary inspection.
Scientists were thrilled to get their first glimpse of the long-awaited asteroid haul. After slowly venting the capsule over several days, the team finally opened the canister on January 19.
“We were awestruck to see the quantity and quality of the sample inside,” said NASA Planetary Science Division Director Lori Glaze. “It was everything we could have hoped for.”
|Over 2 pounds total mass
|Fine-Grained “Sandy” Material
|Abundant loose grains
|Present but amount uncertain
The capsule contained over 2 pounds of material – far more than scientists expected. This bounty will allow for extensive analysis while preserving a substantial portion for future study as instruments and techniques improve.
In addition to rock fragments of various sizes, the capsule held plentiful sandy grains below 1 millimeter across. This fine-grained sample from Bennu’s surface is ideal for certain types of analysis.
Scientists also confirmed the presence of organic compounds, although additional study is required to fully characterize the type and amount. Organic chemicals like these could help explain how life’s building blocks originated on the early Earth.
Unlocking Asteroid Mysteries
The returned asteroid fragments offer an unprecedented glimpse into the early solar system over 4.5 billion years ago. Unlike meteorites fallen to Earth, this pristine sample was deliberately collected and transported under highly controlled conditions.
“This allows us to study Bennu’s makeup in precise detail – down to the microscopic scale – from the very first lab analyses,” said Dante Lauretta, OSIRIS-REx principal investigator.
Asteroids like Bennu contain material from the early solar system that has remained relatively unchanged. Studying these primitive samples will reveal key insights into our cosmic history and improve models of asteroid composition.
Planning Extensive Sample Analysis
Over the coming months, scientists will thoroughly document the sample contents and conduct preliminary analyses to assess their properties. They will measure the elemental composition, isotopic ratios, mineral content, and more.
Additionally, cameras and microscopes will meticulously image and map individual rock fragments and sand grains. By cataloging every grain, researchers can select ideal particles for specific experiments.
“We will take a careful and systematic approach to understand this sample,” said NASA Associate Administrator Thomas Zurbuchen. “Planning for sample analysis on Earth began years prior to launch and will continue for many years to come.”
Legacy Sample Storage for Future Generations
While eager researchers have already begun initial examination, scientists must carefully pace their work. Over 75% of the returned sample will be preserved untouched specifically for future study.
This priceless “legacy” collection guarantees that generations of scientists not yet born will have pristine, unexamined sample available when new analytical techniques and instruments are developed in the decades and centuries ahead.
“I am thrilled about the legacy value of these samples,” said early career planetary scientist Leyla Cross. “I hope to be involved 50 years from now when my students can analyze particles with technology unimaginable today.”
Asteroids contain scientific treasure troves that will continue enlightening us for many lifetimes to come.
What’s Next: DART Test and More Sample-Return Missions
While scientists dig into analysis of the asteroid samples from Bennu, exciting new missions continue across the solar system and beyond.
Later this year, NASA’s DART spacecraft will conduct a kinetic impact test on a non-threatening asteroid called Dimorphos. This real-world experiment will help validate one potential method of deflecting dangerous asteroids heading for Earth.
Additionally, Japan’s Hayabusa2 and China’s ZhengHe have asteroid sample return missions underway targeting Ryugu and Kamoʻoalewa respectively. Each unique object will offer fresh insights.
“Sample-return missions are producing a paradigm shift in planetary science,” said NASA Director Bill Nelson. “Lab analysis on Earth unlocks scientific discovery not accessible any other way.”
OSIRIS-REx and other groundbreaking missions continue to unveil our cosmic history and propel visionary new technology. After this extraordinary early sample glimpse, the best discoveries from asteroid Bennu have only just begun.
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