Updated September 19, 2023 at 10:28 AM
NASA scientists practice dropping the capsule again. (Registration date: August 29, 2023)
© NASA/Keegan Barber
Collecting the sample from asteroid Bennu was truly amazing. And now it will be brought back in a similarly stunning way. The capsule is scheduled to be lowered from OSIRIS-REx on Sunday and land in the Utah desert. If all goes according to plan, part of the history of the solar system awaits scientists.
Dropping a capsule from the lander is a bit like playing darts, but on a basketball court, says NASA Administrator Rich Burns. NASA’s OSIRIS-REx probe is scheduled to launch the sample from the asteroid Bennu over the desert of the American state of Utah on Sunday, September 24, at an altitude of about 102,000 kilometers.
Hours later, the capsule will enter the Earth’s atmosphere protected by a heat shield and will land after about 13 minutes with the help of parachutes in an area of about 58 x 14 kilometers. “It’s like throwing a dart on a basketball court and hitting the bullseye on the other side,” Burns says.
If all goes well, this will be the first asteroid sample successfully brought to Earth in NASA history — and perhaps the largest sample ever taken. “A piece of solar system history,” says NASA scientist Nicola Fuchs.
Sampling was a complex maneuver that lasted several hours
She and her colleagues estimate there are about 250 grams of dust and debris in the capsule, which is about 81 centimeters in diameter, weighs about 46 kilograms, and looks like a salad bowl with a high lid. In 2005, the Japanese space probe Hayabusa landed on an asteroid. In 2010, the first soil samples collected from this celestial body were brought to Earth. There have been other flights to asteroids, but no other probe has been able to return material to Earth yet.
Taking the sample by “Osiris-Rex” (abbreviation: Origins, Spectral Interpretation, Resource Identification, Security-Regolith Explorer) in October 2020 was a complex and amazing maneuver that lasted several hours: the probe lifted off from Cape Canaveral Spaceport in 2016 temporarily left its place in Bennu’s orbit and approached it within a few metres.
Using what looked like a robotic arm, it touched the asteroid’s surface for about five seconds and expelled pressurized nitrogen to stir up the sample material, which was then sucked up.
The collapse occurred instantly during the complex process, which had been practiced twice before: the lid of the collection container was opened slightly by larger stones, allowing parts of the sample to escape. NASA scientists still assume there is enough material in the collection container.
NASA considers Bennu one of the most dangerous asteroids currently known
After landing, the sample will be transported to NASA’s Johnson Space Center in Houston, Texas, for examination. Deep Black Bennu, named after an ancient Egyptian god, is about 550 meters in diameter and could come completely close to Earth in 150 years. Even if the risk of collision is very low, NASA considers Bennu one of the most dangerous asteroids currently known – and therefore wants to research it in detail.
Scientists also hope that the Osiris-Rex mission, which costs about $1 billion, will provide insight into the formation of the solar system more than 4.5 billion years ago, because asteroids are remnants of it. NASA’s next probe, Psyche, is scheduled to launch to an asteroid at the beginning of October.
The Osiris-Rex probe, which is about six meters long and weighs 2,100 kilograms, has already been assigned new tasks. After being shot down, it must fly directly to the next asteroid, this time to Apophis. According to calculations, the asteroid with a diameter of about 370 meters will pass near Earth at a distance of about 32 thousand kilometers in 2029, and thus it can be studied closely for the first time. “Osiris-Rex” also got a new name for the subsequent mission: “Osiris-Apex”. (pp/dpa)
Read also: An asteroid on a collision course: This is how a collision can be prevented
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