Thursday, June 20, 2024

NASA’s Historic Asteroid Soil Delivery: Giant Sample Safely Lands in Utah Desert

NASA’s Record-Breaking Capsule Safely Lands in Utah Desert After Asteroid Odyssey

A NASA space capsule recently carried the biggest sample of soil ever collected from an asteroid. This capsule re-entered Earth’s atmosphere and landed safely in the Utah desert. It delivered this unique celestial sample to scientists for further study.

The capsule, shaped like a gumdrop, was released from a robotic spacecraft called OSIRIS-REx, which had been orbiting relatively close to Earth. It touched down in a specific landing area west of Salt Lake City within the Utah Test and Training Range, used by the U.S. military.

This event marked the end of a six-year mission jointly conducted by NASA and the University of Arizona. It was only the third time in history that an asteroid sample had been brought back to Earth for examination. Previous missions by Japan’s space agency in 2010 and 2020 also accomplished this feat, but the recent NASA mission brought back the largest sample by far.

After landing, the capsule rested on the sandy Utah desert floor with a red-and-white parachute nearby. There was a moment of uncertainty when the preliminary chute didn’t deploy as expected, but the main parachute successfully opened, leading to a gentle and nearly perfect landing.

Dante Lauretta, a scientist from the University of Arizona who had been involved in the project from the beginning, was overjoyed when he heard the words “main chute detected.” He even admitted to shedding tears of relief.

Tim Prizer, an engineer from Lockheed Martin working on the project, described the landing as “soft as a dove.”

The OSIRIS-REx mission collected the soil sample from an asteroid named Bennu three years ago. Bennu is a small asteroid that occasionally passes relatively close to Earth. It is about 500 meters wide, which is wider than the Empire State Building is tall but much smaller than the asteroid that wiped out the dinosaurs 66 million years ago.

Bennu, like other asteroids, is a remnant from the early solar system. Its chemistry and mineral composition have remained largely unchanged for about 4.5 billion years, providing valuable insights into the formation of planets like Earth.

Scientists are particularly interested in whether Bennu contains organic molecules that might be similar to those needed for the emergence of life.

Previous missions, such as Japan’s Hayabusa2, found two organic compounds in samples from another near-Earth asteroid, Ryugu. This discovery supports the idea that asteroids, comets, and meteorites bombarding Earth in the distant past might have contributed the basic building blocks necessary for life.

The OSIRIS-REx spacecraft was launched in 2016, arrived at Bennu in 2018, and spent nearly two years orbiting the asteroid before collecting the sample in 2020. After departing Bennu in 2021, the spacecraft traveled about 1.2 billion miles back to Earth, including two orbits around the sun.

During re-entry, the capsule entered Earth’s atmosphere at an astonishing 35 times the speed of sound. It heated up and glowed red-hot, with temperatures on its heat shield reaching 5,000 degrees Fahrenheit (2,800 degrees Celsius).

The sample collected from Bennu is estimated to be around 250 grams (8.8 ounces), far surpassing the 5-gram sample retrieved from Ryugu in 2020 and the tiny sample brought back from asteroid Itokawa in 2010.

A team of scientists and technicians was on standby to retrieve the capsule and ensure it remained free from any Earthly contamination.

The capsule, along with its valuable cargo, was transported by helicopter to a specially designed clean room at the Utah test range for initial examination.

On Monday, it will be flown to NASA’s Johnson Space Center in Houston on a military transport plane. There, the canister containing the sample will be opened on Tuesday, and the soil will be divided into smaller portions for distribution to around 200 scientists in 60 laboratories around the world.

Meanwhile, the main part of the OSIRIS-REx spacecraft is expected to continue its journey to explore another near-Earth asteroid called Apophis.

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