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OSIRIS-REx safely delivers rock samples from asteroid Bennu back to Earth

NASA’s OSIRIS-REx team has achieved a monumental milestone in space exploration, successfully returning a capsule containing rocks and dust from asteroid Bennu to Earth. This capsule marked its entry on Earth at 8:52 a.m. MDT on Sunday, landing meticulously in a predetermined area of the Department of Defense’s Utah Test and Training Range, near Salt Lake City.

To Bennu and back

The spacecraft traversed billions of miles to reach Bennu and return the capsule. It released the capsule toward Earth’s atmosphere when it was about 63,000 miles from the Earth’s surface, approximately one-third the distance from Earth to the Moon.

Traveling at a speed of 27,650 mph, the capsule entered the atmosphere, landing within 10 minutes on the military range, supported by two parachutes, ensuring stability and a gradual speed reduction to 11 mph at touchdown.

Importance of nitrogen purge

Post-landing, the capsule saw immediate action, being transported by helicopter to a temporary clean room in a hangar on the training range within an hour and a half.

Here, it connected to a continuous flow of nitrogen, referred to as a “nitrogen purge” by scientists, to ensure the sample’s purity by keeping out earthly contaminants. Nitrogen, being chemically inert with most substances, is crucial in maintaining the pristine condition of the samples.

Scientific treasure from Bennu

The samples collected, estimated at around 8.8 ounces or 250 grams, are of immense scientific value. They are expected to unravel mysteries regarding planet formation and the origins of organics and water that enabled life on Earth. They will provide scientists worldwide with unparalleled insight into the formation of our solar system and help humanity understand more about potentially hazardous asteroids.

NASA Administrator Bill Nelson congratulated the OSIRIS-REx team on the successful return of the first American asteroid sample, emphasizing how such missions unite and inspire humanity, proving “nothing is beyond our reach when we work together.”

Post-landing procedures

The unopened canister, holding the unprecedented samples from Bennu, will be transported by aircraft to NASA’s Johnson Space Center in Houston on Monday, Sept. 25. Scientists will disassemble the canister, extract, weigh the sample, create an inventory of the rocks and dust, and over time, distribute pieces of Bennu to scientists globally.

Dante Lauretta, the principal investigator for OSIRIS-REx at the University of Arizona, Tucson, emphasized that the delivery of the samples marks a significant achievement not just for the OSIRIS-REx team but for science as a whole. This accomplishment, according to Lauretta, is a testament to collaborative ingenuity and symbolizes what unity with a common purpose can achieve.

Rich Burns, the project manager for OSIRIS-REx at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Maryland, drew parallels between the mission’s success and a triumphant moment in a crucial baseball match, illustrating the team’s heightened anticipation and preparedness.

Asteroid Autumn

This triumphant return of the asteroid sample is not the end but the commencement of a new chapter in space exploration. The upcoming missions, including Psyche launch, DART’s one year anniversary, and Lucy’s first asteroid approach, are setting the stage for an intense period of exploration, aptly named “Asteroid Autumn.”

NASA’s successful execution of this mission is a stepping stone to further groundbreaking discoveries and advancements in space exploration, reaffirming that when driven by unity and shared ambitions, the possibilities for humankind are limitless.

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