NASA successfully returned dusty samples from asteroid Bennu to Earth. The Osiris-Rex spacecraft collected the asteroid sample from the surface of Bennu in 2020.
Bennu is considered the most dangerous known rock in the Solar System. The 500-metre-wide asteroid has a zero chance of impacting Earth within the next 300 years. The asteroid has been the focal point of NASA’s Osiris-Rex mission. The objective is to understand the potentially hazardous celestial body. However, the mission also attempts to understand the Solar System’s formation, which dates back 4.6 billion years, and the origins of life on Earth.
The Osiris-Rex spacecraft touchdown occurred at precisely 10:52 local time (14:52 GMT), three minutes earlier than planned. The re-entry involved a container approximately the size of a car tire hurtling through the atmosphere at 12 kilometres per second (27,000 miles per hour). A combination of a heatshield and parachutes was employed to decelerate the capsule’s descent to ensure a safe return, enabling a gentle and precise landing on restricted ground.
Initial estimates suggest that the samples weigh around 250 grams (9 ounces).
Maintaining cleanliness was a major concern during the recovery operation in the desert. The recovery teams transported the capsule to a temporary clean room located at the nearby Dugway Army base as swiftly as possible. This urgency stemmed from concerns that the samples within the capsule might contain carbon compounds relevant to the origins of life. Extreme precautions were taken to prevent any potential contamination of the rocky material with Earth’s current chemistry.
The analysis will commence once the sample is transported to a specialised facility at NASA’s Johnson Space Center. Leading this assessment will be UK scientist Ashley King, who is part of a six-person Quick Look team.
According to Ashley King, the sample may consist of a soft and fragile rocky material. Initial expectations suggest it may contain clay minerals, silicate minerals with water trapped in their structure, a significant amount of carbon, carbonate minerals, and possibly some features known as chondrules.
The presence of calcium-aluminium inclusions, among the first solid materials to form in the Solar System, is also a possibility.
NASA has scheduled a press conference for 11 October to share its initial findings from the returned sample.
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