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OSIRIS-REx is bringing first-ever asteroid sample back to Earth in two weeks

In the vast expanses of Utah’s West Desert, a significant milestone in space exploration is taking place. Led by NASA, a team of scientists and engineers is gearing up for what is set to be a momentous occasion in September: the return of OSIRIS-REx and the first-ever U.S. asteroid sample to Earth.

The countdown to this monumental event saw a key test on Wednesday. A mockup of NASA’s OSIRIS-REx (Origins, Spectral Interpretation, Resource Identification, and Security–Regolith Explorer) sample capsule was dropped from an aircraft.

The capsule successfully made its descent to the designated drop zone situated at the Department of Defense’s Utah Test and Training Range. The location is a desert area not far from Salt Lake City. This significant test was the final rehearsal before the actual asteroid sample from Bennu lands on September 24th. OSIRIS-REx captured the sample almost three years ago.

Nicola Fox, associate administrator of NASA’s Science Mission Directorate in Washington, expressed the significance of this event. She said, “We are now mere weeks away from receiving a piece of solar system history on Earth, and this successful drop test ensures we’re ready. Pristine material from asteroid Bennu will help shed light on the formation of our solar system 4.5 billion years ago, and perhaps even on how life on Earth began.”

Safely bringing an asteroid sample back to Earth

As the capsule’s arrival looms closer, it’s worth noting that they have conducted other rehearsals besides this drop test. Earlier in spring and summer, the team engaged in various preliminary exercises. These encompassed capsule recovery, spacecraft engineering operations, and sample curation procedures. With the main event less than a month away, the OSIRIS-REx team is completing these preparatory phases and bracing for the real thing.

Dante Lauretta, principal investigator for OSIRIS-REx at the University of Arizona, Tucson, shared his sentiments on the meticulous groundwork that’s been laid out. He said, “I am immensely proud of the efforts our team has poured into this endeavor. Just as our meticulous planning and rehearsal prepared us to collect a sample from Bennu, we have honed our skills for sample recovery.”

This isn’t just any sample. The capsule is anticipated to be carrying a substantial 8.8 ounces of rocky material, which was harvested from the asteroid Bennu in 2020.

Researchers will thoroughly examine this rocky treasure in the forthcoming years. Scientists aim to decipher clues about the origins of our planet, the intricacies of our solar system, and potentially, the emergence of life on Earth.

How to watch the OSIRIS-REx landing

For space enthusiasts wanting to witness this historic event, the capsule is scheduled to penetrate Earth’s atmosphere on September 24, 2023, at a blistering speed of around 27,650 mph. For those eager to catch the action live, NASA will be broadcasting the landing starting 10 a.m. EDT on NASA TV, the NASA app, and on their official website.

Rich Burns, the project manager for OSIRIS-REx at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center, likened this mission to a marathon. He remarked, “We are now in the final leg of this seven-year journey, and it feels very much like the last few miles of a marathon, with a confluence of emotions like pride and joy coexisting with a determined focus to complete the race well.”

Once secured, they will transport the capsule to a temporary clean room on the military range. Here, it will undergo a series of initial processing steps and disassembly, preparing it for its subsequent journey to NASA’s Johnson Space Center in Houston. In Houston, researchers will document, preserve, and eventually disseminate the valuable sample to scientists worldwide for in-depth analysis.

Potential risks involved

Returning an asteroid sample to Earth with the OSIRIS-REx mission carries immense scientific potential. However, it has also raised some concerns among certain segments of the population. Here are the primary reasons for these apprehensions.

Potential biohazards of an asteroid sample

One of the chief concerns revolves around the possibility, however unlikely, that the asteroid sample could contain extraterrestrial microorganisms or substances harmful to life on Earth.

If such organisms exist and were to be inadvertently introduced to our environment, the consequences are unpredictable. This concern mirrors the worries some had when the Apollo astronauts returned from the Moon. Ultimately, this led to them being quarantined upon their return.

Sample containment

Closely related to the biohazard concern is the worry about the integrity of the sample return capsule. If the capsule were to rupture upon re-entry or landing, it could potentially release the asteroid material into the Earth’s environment.

Impact risk

Though the sample capsule is relatively small and designed for a controlled re-entry, there’s always a minute risk with any object re-entering the Earth’s atmosphere. Accidents, however improbable, can occur.

Precedent for future missions

Some concerns arise from a broader perspective on space exploration. If we begin regularly retrieving samples from various celestial bodies, each return poses its own set of risks. Setting a precedent with OSIRIS-REx might accelerate our pursuit of similar missions without sufficient public understanding or debate.

Resource allocation

While not a concern about the return of the sample per se, some question the allocation of resources for such missions. They argue that the funds spent on OSIRIS-REx could be used for other pressing issues on Earth or other space projects deemed more crucial.

Environmental concerns

Space missions invariably have environmental impacts. These range from the launch vehicle emissions to the potential disturbances in the sites selected for landing the returning capsules. Some individuals worry about the cumulative effects of these activities as space missions become more frequent.

It’s worth noting that NASA and its partners have carefully considered and planned for these concerns. For instance, the sample capsule from OSIRIS-REx has rigorous containment protocols to ensure both the purity of the sample and the safety of the environment.

Similarly, extensive risk assessments and mitigation strategies are in place for all phases of the mission. The goal is to maximize the scientific return while minimizing any potential risks.

More about the OSIRIS-Rex mission

NASA, always at the forefront of space exploration, launched a ground-breaking mission named OSIRIS-REx. The mission’s name stands for Origins, Spectral Interpretation, Resource Identification, Security–Regolith Explorer. This mission not only pushed the boundaries of our understanding of asteroids but also showcased how humans can potentially interact with these celestial bodies in the future.

Launch and objective

On September 8, 2016, NASA launched the OSIRIS-REx spacecraft with a bold aim. The goal is to reach the near-Earth asteroid Bennu, study it in detail, and return a sample to our planet. This mission seeks to answer fundamental questions about the solar system’s birth and the origins of life on Earth.

Asteroids, being remnants from the solar system’s formation, contain organic molecules, water, and minerals. By studying these building blocks, scientists hope to piece together the story of our cosmic beginnings.

Journey to Bennu

OSIRIS-REx undertook a two-year journey, covering more than a billion miles, before rendezvousing with Bennu in December 2018. During this phase, the spacecraft conducted a series of maneuvers and Earth gravity assists to align its trajectory with that of Bennu.

Detailed study of the asteroid

Once it reached its target, OSIRIS-REx began its thorough examination. It mapped the entire asteroid, identified its chemical makeup, and noted its physical properties. This rigorous study served two primary purposes: scientific understanding and site selection for sample collection.

Touch and Go (TAG) sample collection

In October 2020, OSIRIS-REx made history. Using its Touch-And-Go Sample Acquisition Mechanism (TAGSAM), the spacecraft briefly touched the asteroid’s surface and collected a sample. This maneuver, dubbed a “touch-and-go” (TAG) maneuver, lasted a mere 16 seconds but was the culmination of years of planning.

Return asteroid sample to Earth

With the sample safely stowed, the next phase of the mission begins: the return to Earth. OSIRIS-REx will depart Bennu in 2021 and is set to deliver its precious cargo to Earth in 2023. Once the sample capsule lands in the Utah desert, teams will transport it to NASA’s Johnson Space Center in Houston for analysis.

The significance of the mission

The OSIRIS-REx mission goes beyond just collecting a sample. It demonstrates the capability of detailed reconnaissance of any celestial body. It also lays the groundwork for future missions, including asteroid mining and planetary defense strategies against potentially hazardous asteroids. Finally, OSIRIS-REx provides insights into the early solar system and the factors that may have led to life on Earth.

In summary, the OSIRIS-REx mission represents a monumental step in our quest to understand our place in the cosmos. Through its journey to Bennu and back, NASA not only showcases human ingenuity but also brings a piece of the universe closer to us, fueling our fascination and respect for the great expanse beyond our planet.

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