Christmas will come for scientists studying asteroids in just two months when a small spacecraft carrying material from a remote debris pile will touch down in the Utah desert.
The return of OSIRIS-REx’s sample container on Sept. 24 will lead to the primary mission of capturing material from an asteroid — in this case, the carbonaceous near-Earth asteroid Bennu — and returning some of its pebbles and dust to Earth.
It’s been a long time. This mission began seven years ago and has been in the planning and development phase for more than a decade. To say that the scientists who fought for and carried out this task are concerned and excited is an understatement. But there’s additional confusion with OSIRIS-REx, because scientists aren’t quite sure what they managed to pull away from the asteroid.
Touch and go
Bennu is basically a pile of rubble, and to collect this material, the spacecraft used a unique “touch and go” maneuver. Immediately after the end of a robotic arm touched down on Bennu, the spacecraft fired a canister of pure nitrogen gas, causing a cloud of material to rise from Bennu’s surface. The sampling arm remained on the surface for seconds to absorb this material before retracting.
The catch is that scientists aren’t entirely sure what they had or how much they recovered. The scientists are confident they have collected at least 60 grams of material from Bennu, or about the mass of a Snickers bar. Most likely, they collected at least a few hundred grams, if not more. But they won’t know until the spacecraft lands and unlocks the capsule.
“It definitely adds to the stress for us,” said Nicole Luening, a planetary scientist at NASA’s Johnson Space Center in Houston.
The samples will be received by a fleet of scientists and helicopters at the Utah Test and Training Range when they land on the morning of the 24th. There, the dusty heat shield will be removed. The sample carrier will then be flown to Ellington Field in Houston the next day, where it will be placed in a clean room. Almost immediately, scientists will remove asteroid dust from the outside of the sample container and begin a preliminary analysis.
On Monday, Lunning led a tour of the facility where over the course of about 10 days, scientists and technicians at Johnson Space Center will delicately open the sample container and begin placing its contents into a special pizza-sized tray with eight sections. Lunning, principal coordinator of OSIRIS-REx samples in Houston, will supervise this work.
It will take place inside a brightly lit ISO-5 clean room on the second floor of Building 31 at the Space Center, with epoxy floors and whitewashed walls. Here, samples will be carefully described, and a catalog of all small rocks and dust particles will be made.
OSIRIS-REx has a team of about 200 scientists dedicated to the mission, and they will have six months to perform their initial analyzes of material recovered from the asteroid’s surface. After this time, the samples will be available to outside scientists for additional research.
the origin of life
Scientists are very interested in samples from the asteroid Bennu because they don’t want to contaminate them with organic matter from Earth. It is hoped that, by understanding what material Bennu is made of, scientists will be able to get a snapshot of conditions going back to the origin of the solar system, when these asteroids formed. By describing the organic materials and minerals around them, scientists may be able to tease out some details about how life originated in the solar system.
For the past half century, starting with the first rocks brought back from the moon by the Apollo mission, NASA has been storing its precious materials from the solar system inside the carefully maintained clean vaults and rooms of the Houston facility. As part of the Astronomical Materials Research and Exploration Sciences Program, this facility houses meteorites originating on Mars, pieces of the solar wind, comet particles, and 127,000 cataloged samples of moon rocks.
“Every sample here has a story to tell,” said Eileen Stansbury, who leads the program. “Our mission is to preserve these samples for scientists to use for decades to come.”
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