Seven years later, a cup of dirt fell to the ground. It can hide big things.
The short version
- NASA’s robotic Osiris-Rex spacecraft has recovered a sample from the asteroid Bennu.
- The sample from the asteroid landed on Earth by parachute in the Utah desert.
- The spacecraft, which was launched seven years ago, will continue its exploratory journey in space after the launch of the experimental capsule.
The summary is created with the help of artificial intelligence (AI) and quality guaranteed by Aftenposten journalists.
It may look like a cup of pebbles. Or 250 grams of dusty and clumpy soil. But it’s actually a sample of soil from the most dangerous asteroid in the solar system. NASA first. The very largest Soil sample recovered from an asteroid.
And this small sample can tell us something very important. Something that man has always thought about.
What is actually happening?
At 12:42 on Sunday, Norwegian time, the US robotic Osiris-Rex spacecraft opened and launched a space capsule. This capsule contains a 4.5 billion-year-old surface sample from the asteroid Bennu. About four hours later, around 16.42, the capsule carrying the soil sample penetrated the Earth’s atmosphere, and after a few minutes it landed and the world’s eyes were on it.
Two parachutes were supposed to land somewhere in the Utah desert Smooth as possible. (And if you’re wondering: a space capsule is a spacecraft designed to fall steadily, sharp end first.) The Guardian writes that four helicopters will locate the capsule.
For seven years, space scientists have been waiting for this moment. That’s how long it has been since NASA and the University of Arizona sent up a space capsule, according to Reuters. The robotic ship has no people on board, but it was able to recover a soil sample from the surface of the asteroid Bennu.
Why is this so important?
Yes, because the samples may provide new information about at least the formation of planets (including Bennu) 4.5 billion years ago. It may also provide insight into how life arose in our universe, Reuters writes.
Because even though Bennu is a small asteroid – only 500 meters in diameter, and therefore much smaller than the asteroid that struck Earth and wiped out the dinosaurs 66 million years ago – it is still considered the most dangerous in the solar system. Every six years it passes by Earth. And then it gets closer.
The odds that the small but dangerous asteroid will hit Earth in the next century are estimated at 1 in 2,700. In other words: a slim chance of disaster. But it is not unlikely.
But why can an asteroid tell us anything?
One of the mission’s goals is to better predict and protect Earth from an asteroid strike. Since the asteroid is a remnant of the early solar system, it has roughly the same chemistry and mineralogy as it did when it formed about 4.5 billion years ago. Therefore, they can learn a lot about how rocky planets, such as Earth, appeared. They may also contain molecules similar to those needed for the evolution of life.
“These are geological materials that formed before the Earth existed,” explained Dante Lauretta of the University of Arizona.
Has no one done this before?
The Earth sample is by far the largest asteroid sample ever transported to Earth. Japan has collected two samples before – in 2010 and 2020. But they only brought home a few grams of the sample material.
Why did the journey take seven years?
Osiris Rex was launched in September 2016. In 2018 it reached Bennu. After that, it orbited the asteroid Bennu for two years. Finally, on October 20, 2020, he was close enough to lower his robotic arm onto the loose surface. It was called a sort of grab-and-go maneuver. And so, in May 2021, the long journey back to Earth began.
What happens now?
Today, when the space capsule penetrates the atmosphere and lands by parachute safely somewhere in the Utah desert, USA, the precious cargo – 250 grams of sandy soil from the surface of Bennu – will immediately enter a helicopter. Then it rushes into a clinically clean room, where no one can contaminate it, and scientists will conduct the first investigations. It will then go to NASA in Houston, where it will be divided into smaller samples that will be distributed to about 200 researchers around the world, Reuters wrote.
But what happens to the robotic vessel that collected the soil sample?
The main body of the Osiris-Rex spacecraft is expected to set sail to explore another near-Earth asteroid.
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