NASA’s Osiris-Rex Capsule spacecraft is set to complete its seven-year voyage on Sunday, landing in the Utah desert with the largest asteroid samples ever collected. The capsule’s mission was to gather valuable samples from the asteroid Bennu, which will provide insights into the formation of our solar system and the potential threats asteroids may pose to Earth.
The capsule’s final descent through Earth’s atmosphere is a perilous one, but NASA is hoping for a soft landing around 9:00 am local time (15:00 GMT) in a military test range in northwestern Utah. After four years of traveling and landing on Bennu, the spacecraft collected around nine ounces (250 grams) of dust from the asteroid’s rocky surface.
Even this small amount of material is expected to provide valuable information about the types of asteroids that could pose a threat to Earth and shed light on the earliest history of our solar system. According to NASA Administrator Bill Nelson, this sample return is “really historic” and comparable in significance to the Apollo moon rock samples.
However, the capsule’s return requires a dangerous maneuver. It will release the capsule from an altitude of over 67,000 miles (108,000 kilometers), followed by a fiery re-entry into Earth’s atmosphere. During the last 13 minutes of descent, the capsule will reach speeds of over 27,000 miles per hour and temperatures of up to 5,000 degrees Fahrenheit (2,760 degrees Celsius).
To ensure a safe landing, two successive parachutes will slow down the descent, and the entire process will be monitored by army sensors. If the parachutes fail, a “hard landing” could occur.
Once the capsule lands in Utah, a team will quickly place it in a net to be airlifted by helicopter to a temporary “clean room.” NASA aims to avoid any contamination of the sample with desert sands, which could impact test results.
The samples will be flown to NASA’s Johnson Space Center in Houston, Texas, where they will be opened and analyzed. The results of the analysis are expected to be announced at a news conference on October 11.
The sample will be divided, with most of it preserved for future study, a portion used for immediate experiments, and small amounts sent to Japan and Canada, who were partners in the mission. Researchers are particularly excited about the size of this sample, as it will allow for extensive testing and analysis.
Overall, the return of the Osiris-Rex capsule and its asteroid samples is a significant achievement in our understanding of the solar system’s origins and the potential impact of asteroids on Earth.
Scientists believe that studying the composition of asteroids, such as Bennu, can provide clues about how the solar system formed and evolved. These celestial bodies may have also delivered organic material and water molecules to Earth, playing a role in the development of life on our planet.
While there is a slight chance of Bennu colliding with Earth in the distant future, NASA has demonstrated the capability to alter an asteroid’s course, reducing the potential threat.
The successful return of the Osiris-Rex capsule marks a major milestone in space exploration and contributes to our knowledge of the universe’s history and potential hazards in our cosmic neighborhood.