In 2016, NASA embarked on an ambitious mission to study the small, potentially dangerous asteroid Bennu, located in the proximity of planet Earth.
The purpose of this mission was to obtain a wealth of information about the early solar system and the origins of life on Earth.
The spacecraft chosen to further this cause was the OSIRIS-REx which has been specially equipped to conduct detailed studies of every aspect of the asteroid’s surface.
The spacecraft boasts of a robotic arm which will be put to use in getting at least 2 ounces (60 grams) of material from Bennu which will be studied upon return to Earth. This will be the first such mission of its kind and has the potential to reveal extremely important findings about our solar system’s evolution.
It is anticipated that this venture will provide unparalleled insights into the conditions that supported life’s emergence on Earth.
It is slightly past 4pm on Sunday 24th September 2023 in Utah, where the historic sample capsule from Nasa’s Osiris-Rex mission carrying samples from the asteroid Bennu landed earlier this morning. Here is a wrap-up of the day’s key events:
Touchdown on desert land belonging to the Department of Defense was confirmed by Nasa at 10:52 local time (14:52 GMT).
The car-tyre-sized container had come screaming into the atmosphere over the western US at more than 12km/s (27,000mph). A heatshield and parachutes slowed its descent and dropped it gently on to restricted ground.
Asked how the rescue mission went, some of the workers told BBC News’ science team that it was “awesome”.
Osiris-Rex principal investigator Dante Lauretta said his first reaction on seeing the capsule floating down on its parachute was to “cry like a baby”.
That might not sound like very much – the weight of an adult hamster, as one scientist described it – but for the types of tests the Nasa teams want to do, it is more than ample.
“Some of our instruments literally look at the atoms that make up the crystals inside these rocks,” Prof Lauretta explained.
“When you’re working at that scale, a single stone is an infinite landscape to explore. We’ll be working on these materials for decades and decades into the future.”
The sample capsule arrived at the highly secured clean-room facility in Utah following its landing earlier this morning in the desert. This significant moment marks the successful delivery from the Utah desert into the clean room, and of course the 1.2bn-mile journey from the asteroid Bennu back to Earth.
Mission members also obtained samples from the surrounding area of the landing zone. Nasa TV showed scientists taking photos around the landing zone as well as measuring air and gas levels.
Sir Brian May, of Queen, has told Nasa TV he is “immensely proud” to be an Osiris-Rex mission team member. May was among those who helped to identify the location on Bennu where the samples would be collected.
Nasa administrator Bill Nelson hailed the Osiris-Rex mission’s success following its capsule’s landing in the Utah desert today. “This mission proves that Nassa does big things, things that have inspired us, things that unite us,” he said.
By studying the samples from Bennu, scientists can compare their results against the data they obtained from instruments on board the spacecraft. This “ground-truthing” means they can then calibrate the latter, allowing them to more accurately explore differences in composition across the surface of Bennu.
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