NASA to Deliver Largest Asteroid Sample to Earth
In a remarkable feat, NASA is set to make a special delivery to Earth this weekend. On Sunday, a spacecraft from the US space agency will approach our planet and release the largest sample ever collected from an asteroid. This marks the culmination of a seven-year mission.
The samples are fragments of the carbon-rich asteroid known as Determine, which was discovered in 1999. With a width of about half a kilometer, roughly equivalent to the height of the Empire State Building in New York, Bennu orbits the sun every 14 months and rotates on its axis every four hours. Scientists anticipate receiving approximately 250 grams of these fragments.
While this may seem like a small amount, it surpasses any previous achievement in asteroid sample collection. Japan, the only other country to have successfully retrieved fragments from such celestial bodies, brought back about a teaspoon of subsurface material from two other asteroids: Itokawa in 2010 and Ryugu in 2020.
Asteroids, which are larger than meteorites but smaller than planets, hold significant scientific value. They serve as “time capsules” that can provide insights into the formation of the solar system and the emergence of life on Earth.
Bennu, believed to contain remnants dating back 4.5 billion years, offers a unique opportunity for scientific exploration. The OSIRIS-REx spacecraft will release the capsule containing the new asteroid sample in the Utah Desert before embarking on its next mission to encounter another asteroid.
The asteroid studied by NASA could collide with Earth
In addition to shedding light on the origins of life, the samples collected by NASA could help scientists develop strategies to divert the potentially hazardous asteroid. Bennu is estimated to have a chance of impacting our planet on September 24, 2182, approximately 159 years from now.
The OSIRIS-REx spacecraft, a space probe, was launched in September 2016 to rendezvous with Bennu. After traveling a staggering 3 billion kilometers, it successfully reached the asteroid in 2018. Over the next two years, the spacecraft meticulously surveyed the space rock to identify the optimal location for sample collection.
In 2020, the spacecraft made a close approach to Bennu and deployed a three-meter-long vacuum cleaner-like device. It briefly touched the asteroid’s surface, collecting dust and rocks. The exact quantity of the sample stored in the capsule will only be determined upon its arrival on Earth.
The safe landing of the capsule is of utmost importance. NASA’s previous sample mission, conducted by a space probe, ended in disaster in 2004 when the capsule carrying solar wind particles crashed into the Utah desert, shattering and compromising the samples.
NASA plans to broadcast the live landing of the capsule, which measures approximately 81 centimeters wide and 50 centimeters high. A parachute will be deployed to slow down its descent in the final 1.6 kilometers, ensuring a gentle touchdown. The capsule will then be transported by helicopter to a nearby laboratory and subsequently moved to NASA’s Johnson Space Center in Houston the following day.
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