In an epoch-making event, NASA’s OSIRIS-REx mission is poised to etch its name in the annals of space exploration history as it prepares to return to Earth with a priceless souvenir from the depths of our solar system.
Almost three years after its historic rendezvous with the enigmatic asteroid Bennu, OSIRIS-REx is embarking on an extraordinary journey home, carrying with it a treasure trove of scientific insights locked within a sample collected during its close encounter.
Scheduled for touchdown in the Utah desert on Sunday, this mission marks a significant milestone as the first-ever U.S. endeavor to retrieve a fragment of an asteroid, promising to unravel the mysteries of our cosmic past.
The Enigma of Bennu
Bennu, a peculiar spinning-top-shaped celestial body with a diameter of approximately half a kilometer, occupies a distinguished place in the cosmos as the most renowned “potentially hazardous” asteroid. Although the label might sound daunting, there is no immediate cause for alarm.
Bennu, believed to have undergone minimal changes since the formation of our solar system, holds the promise of offering a window into the primordial era when our planets were born. This enigmatic space rock may even have played a role in transporting essential ingredients for life, such as water and ancient building blocks, to our young Earth.
A Precision-Scripted Return
The meticulous planning for OSIRIS-REx’s triumphant return has been underway for months. The grand spectacle is scheduled for September 24, approximately at 8:42 am local time (2:42 pm UTC).
The spacecraft, encasing its precious cargo, will dramatically enter Earth’s atmosphere, deploying a precision-engineered parachute system before gently touching down within the confines of the U.S. Air Force’s Utah Test and Training Range.
Once safely back on Earth, the capsule will be transported to a specially equipped facility, where rigorous procedures will be undertaken to ensure minimal contamination. This includes the meticulous removal of the heat shield and back shell, followed by the application of nitrogen to eliminate any lingering traces of oxygen and moisture from the sample canister.
A Scientific Odyssey Begins
The journey doesn’t end with the safe return of OSIRIS-REx. In fact, this is where the real scientific adventure begins. Within the confines of a specialized cleanroom, and under the vigilant gaze of scientists, the precious sample will be unveiled from its protective casing. Portions of this cosmic treasure will be distributed to research institutes, eager to unlock the secrets hidden within. Astonishingly, the mission has exceeded expectations, collecting more than the requisite 60 grams of material. NASA estimates that the bounty could range from 400 to 1,000 grams (14-35 ounces), ensuring that ample material is available for scientific investigation.
Unveiling Cosmic Clues
“I’m very interested in the arrival of the specimens from the asteroid Bennu. This will be the largest specimen we’ve received from an asteroid to date,” remarked Brother Bob Macke, the curator of meteorites at the Vatican Observatory.
Macke has devised a groundbreaking pycnometer, a device designed to measure volume, density, and porosity of celestial materials. By assessing these critical characteristics, scientists hope to gain invaluable insights into Bennu’s origin and composition. While initial expectations centered around a sandy surface, OSIRIS-REx’s revelations painted a different picture, with numerous boulders dotting the asteroid’s surface. The finer materials, ideal for sampling, were found nestled within craters and depressions—a challenging terrain, considering Bennu’s precarious gravity.
A “Wow” Moment of Discovery
The path to successful sample collection was fraught with risks, as OSIRIS-REx navigated the asteroid’s treacherous topography. It was the remarkable 3D stereoscopic images of Bennu, crafted by astrophysicist and renowned musician Sir Brian May in collaboration with Claudia Manzoni, that unveiled a safe landing site for the spacecraft. These stereoscopic images, presented in a book format, provide a clear view of Bennu’s intricate structure, guiding the mission to its momentous achievement.
Bennu: A Cosmic Time Capsule
Bennu’s distinctive composition was the primary reason for its selection as the inaugural target for a U.S. asteroid sample-return mission. It represents a pristine relic from the dawn of our solar system, preserving a snapshot of the conditions prevailing during our planet’s formation.
Beyond this, the insights gained from the Bennu sample will provide a vital context for the study of meteorites—those celestial travelers that occasionally grace our planet’s surface. With this newfound understanding, scientists will be better equipped to interpret the origins and journeys of these enigmatic space rocks.
Charting the Future
Following the successful delivery of its celestial cargo, the mission will undergo a transformation, adopting the moniker “OSIRIS-APEX.” Its next destination on this cosmic odyssey is asteroid Apophis, slated for a rendezvous in 2029. This ongoing exploration of our celestial neighbors promises to unlock the secrets of our solar system’s formation, offering tantalizing glimpses into the vast cosmic tapestry that surrounds us.
As NASA’s OSIRIS-REx mission prepares for its historic return, the scientific community and the world at large stand poised to receive a cosmic gift—an extraterrestrial messenger that may hold the key to unraveling the mysteries of our solar system’s birth.