The NASA robotic spacecraft, OSIRIS-REx, successfully collected a package from the asteroid Bennu, which is primarily composed of carbon. This carbon surface is of great significance as it can provide insights into the development of life on Earth. However, the mission encountered a moment of concern when OSIRIS-REx almost vanished in a field of loose gravel, dirt, and pebbles on the asteroid.
The choice of Bennu as the target for this mission is due to its diversity. Unlike most asteroids that are rock-based, Bennu offers a unique opportunity for scientific exploration. Scientists eagerly await the sample that OSIRIS-REx is returning, as it is expected to provide valuable information about the asteroid’s composition.
Chemical engineer Solveig Irvine from NASA’s Marshall Space Flight Center provided details about the mission during a discussion with the media. The primary aim of understanding Bennu’s composition is to gain insights into the microbiology and chemistry that existed on Earth before the development of life. Additionally, studying samples from space can shed light on the precursors of life and what else might be present beyond our planet.
Contrary to the usual fate of samples returning through the atmosphere, which typically burn up, the pristine sample collected by OSIRIS-REx will help scientists understand the nature of the space environment and potentially reveal the origins of life. This achievement is particularly exciting as it provides a glimpse into what lies beyond Earth.
Regarding the challenges faced during the mission, Irvine explained that it began in 2011 when NASA announced opportunities for mission proposals. Teams from the University of Arizona, Lockheed, and Goddard Space Center collaborated to express their interest in sampling a carbonaceous (“C-type”) asteroid. The team successfully collected a sample, although the exact amount is still unknown.
As for the sample’s landing back on Earth, the navigation team responsible for this task has displayed exceptional expertise. Adjustments were made to ensure that the spacecraft is on the correct trajectory, and a specific landing area in the Arizona desert has been identified. The team’s previous achievement of successfully landing the spacecraft on an asteroid leaves them confident that they can accurately land the sample in the desert as well.
When it comes to the advantages of missions like OSIRIS-REx, Irvine highlighted that human spaceflight provides firsthand observation and physical interaction, while smaller robotic spacecraft offer continuous data collection without the need for rest. Additionally, these robotic missions are more cost-effective and easier to launch and operate. By combining human and robotic capabilities, scientists can benefit from both approaches and gather a wealth of knowledge about the universe.
As for the fate of the collected sample, it will be taken to the Johnson Space Center in Texas for curation. About 75 percent of the sample will be stored for future scientists, while the remaining 25 percent will be allocated to the OSIRIS-REx team for further analysis.
Irvine expressed a personal attachment to the spacecraft and affectionately referred to it as “O-Rex.” The team has nurtured a strong connection with the spacecraft throughout the mission and eagerly anticipates its future endeavors.
– NASA’s OSIRIS-REx collects carbon sample from asteroid Bennu