With a blaze and a descent, NASA‘s OSIRIS-REx mission has achieved a monumental milestone. Today, after journeying a staggering 1.2 billion miles from the asteroid Bennu, the spacecraft’s science capsule returned to Earth. As it soared through our atmosphere at a breakneck 27,000mph, it carried potential answers to some of the universe’s most enigmatic questions.
Sampling Stardust and Secrets
Launched half a decade ago in 2016, the mission’s ambitious goal was to retrieve material from an asteroid – material that could potentially unlock secrets of the nascent Solar System.
“Small body missions like OSIRIS-REx seek to explore the multitude of asteroids in our solar system, providing insights into its formation and evolution,” expressed Melissa Morris, the mission’s program executive. She further emphasized the importance of this mission, asserting that it provides an opportunity to unravel “our own origin story.“
The capsule’s return was meticulously coordinated. Using parachutes to slow its descent, it touched down at the Department of Defense’s Utah Test and Training Range. This expansive site, the most expansive restricted airspace in the U.S., has a legacy of welcoming other NASA missions, like Genesis and Stardust.
For the OSIRIS-REx team, precision has been the name of the game. Sandra Freund, the mission’s program manager, highlighted the challenges they faced during the sampling phase in 2020. “Orbiting Bennu and then touching down to retrieve our sample required extraordinary navigational precision. We were less than a meter from our target,” she stated.
Soon after the capsule’s landing, a recovery team helicoptered the precious sample out of Utah’s desert landscape. With deliberate care, it’s set to be taken to a designated clean room for preliminary disassembly. This will safeguard the invaluable asteroid material from Earth’s atmospheric contamination.
Bridging the Gap between Stars and Life
But why is this asteroid sample so crucial to scientists?
Dante Lauretta, the principal investigator for OSIRIS-REx, offered insight: “Our quest is to decipher trace organic molecular chemistry. We aim to discern whether elements vital for our biological functions today, such as amino acids and nucleic acids, were birthed in ancient asteroid bodies and subsequently delivered to Earth.”
This might seem fantastical to some, but the hypothesis of life’s essential compounds being delivered to Earth via celestial bodies is not new. It doesn’t suggest that life began elsewhere; rather, it posits that life’s precursors might have been ferried to our planet by asteroids.
Although meteorites have served as essential research subjects in the past, they come with limitations. These space fragments, when passing through Earth’s atmosphere, can easily get contaminated, casting doubt on any findings.
With OSIRIS-REx’s mission, we might finally access an untouched sample from space.
A Collaborative Endeavor to Unearth the Unknown
While NASA has ventured into uncharted territory with this mission, Japan’s space agency, JAXA, has been a trailblazer with its Hayabusa missions. The collaborative spirit between these missions is evident, with both teams working towards the shared goal of understanding the vastness of space.
Contrasting samples from different asteroids will offer researchers myriad perspectives, enabling a broader and more nuanced understanding of our universe. “It’s a collective endeavor,” shared Lauretta, emphasizing the worldwide effort.
Rewinding Time with Asteroid Samples
Exploring asteroids propels scientists back in time. These celestial bodies are believed to date back to the Solar System’s infancy. Bennu, OSIRIS-REx’s asteroid target, potentially houses material from around 4.5 billion years ago.
While Earth’s dynamic nature has erased much of its ancient history, asteroids stand as sentinels of time, holding within them stories of the universe’s birth.
Lauretta eloquently summarized this sentiment: “When you study asteroids, you journey to the Solar System’s very dawn.”
The Journey Continues
Having completed its primary mission, OSIRIS-REx isn’t retiring. It will embark on a new adventure to study Apophis, a renowned asteroid. Lauretta is excited about the upcoming close flyby of Apophis in 2029, potentially offering a rare visual treat for Earth’s residents.
Meanwhile, the Bennu sample awaits its moment in the spotlight at NASA’s Johnson Space Center. For Lauretta and the team, it signifies a triumphant end and a thrilling new beginning.
He summed up the team’s sentiments, “After over a decade of planning, designing, and executing, we’re on the cusp of understanding the profound secrets this capsule holds.“
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