NASA is finalizing its preparations to land a valuable asteroid sample on Earth next month.
The agency’s OSIRIS-REx mission teams conducted a critical test Wednesday (August 30), recovering a dummy capsule that had fallen to the ground at the US Department of Defense’s Utah Department of Defense Test and Training Range, in the desert west of Salt Lake City.
This is where OSIRIS-REx’s real sample capsule, which contains about 8.8 ounces (250 grams) of material from the near-Earth asteroid Bennu, will land on September 24.
“We’re now just weeks away from getting a piece of the solar system’s history on Earth, and this successful fall test ensures we’re ready,” said Nicola Fox, associate administrator for NASA’s Science Mission Directorate in Washington. statement on Wednesday.
“The original material from the asteroid Bennu will help shed light on the formation of our solar system 4.5 billion years ago, and perhaps even on how life began on Earth,” Fox added.
Related: Dramatic samples show that asteroid Bennu is not what scientists expected it to be
OSIRIS-REx was launched in September 2016, on a mission to study and collect samples from Bennu, a potentially hazardous asteroid about 1,650 feet (500 meters) across.
The spacecraft arrived at Bennu in December 2018. It then closely monitored the asteroid for about two years, taking measurements of rocks and looking for good places to pounce and collect a sample.
That moment arrived in October 2020, and it came with a fair amount of drama and surprise.
“We definitely thought we were going to land on a solid surface – this was an asteroid, and it was a rock from outer space – but it actually responded more like a fluid, as if you dropped yourself into a ball pit somewhere.” “It’s a children’s playground,” OSIRIS-REx principal investigator Dante Laurita of the University of Arizona said during a press conference Wednesday.
“The good news is that because of this really smooth surface, we’ve collected an enormous amount of material,” he added.
This material is now making its way to Earth aboard the OSIRIS-REx spacecraft, which stands for Origins, Spectral Interpretation, Resource Identification, and Security–Regolith Explorer. The mission team has been training for its arrival for some time, conducting a series of tests over the spring and summer. NASA officials said Wednesday’s recovery of the capsule is part of the last major exercise.
After the capsule lands, it will be moved to a clean room at Utah Military Field, where it will be processed. The Bennu material will then be sent to NASA’s Johnson Space Center in Houston, where it will be coordinated.
Over the coming months and years, some of this asteroid material will be sent to scientists around the world, who will study it for clues about how our solar system formed and evolved.
Researchers will also look for evidence of organic molecules, the carbon-containing building blocks of life. Carbon-rich asteroids like Bennu are thought to have delivered much of this material to our planet, along with much of the water, through impacts long ago.
By the way, OSIRIS-REx will not land on Earth next month: the probe will continue to fly, on an extended mission to explore the asteroid Apophis.
OSIRIS-REx is scheduled to reach Apophis – like Bennu, a potentially dangerous asteroid – in 2029.