Its cargo is so valuable that it could help answer some of humanity’s most important existential questions.
That’s why there’s so much excitement about the return of the OSIRIS-REx spacecraft, which will drop a capsule full of 4.5 billion-year-old space dust back to Earth on Sunday.
The 250g sample, boldly taken from the mountain-sized asteroid Bennu in October 2020, could shed light on how life emerged on Earth and whether we are alone in the universe.
OSIRIS-REx began its two-year, four-month journey home in May 2021, after being shut down to conserve energy during the journey.
However, in the early hours of Sunday, the probe will exit this low-power mode ahead of its important delivery.
How NASA’s asteroid sample will be brought to Earth: This graphic reveals step-by-step how a capsule carrying dust from a 4.5 billion-year-old space rock will make its historic landing in Utah on Sunday
Special delivery! The 250 g (8.8 oz) sample of rock and dust will be dropped back to Earth by the OSIRIS-REx spacecraft on Sunday.
THE BUILDING BLOCKS OF LIFE MAY BE IN BENNU BOULDERS
Asteroid Bennu may contain the building blocks of life within its “rubble pile” surface, and the body was once part of a much larger, water-covered world, scientists say.
NASA’s OSIRIS-Rex mission will return its samples of the 4.5 billion-year-old space rock on Sunday.
Bennu’s rocks were found to contain a glowing vein of carbonate
As part of the preparations for the mission, several research papers were published on the history and composition of the near-Earth asteroid.
One such paper found evidence of organic and carbon-containing materials spread across Bennu’s surface.
These materials were found in veins running through the rocks and had to form as a result of the free flow of water found in the largest and long-destroyed celestial body that created Bennu.
This is the first confirmed detection of these building blocks of life on a near-Earth asteroid.
NASA engineers will want to make sure OSIRIS-REx’s trajectory and orientation are spot on because even the slightest misalignment could spell disaster for the mission.
That could mean the capsule burns up in Earth’s atmosphere or misses the planet entirely and shoots off into space.
Once they are satisfied with their calculations, the spacecraft will jettison its payload at 06:42 ET (11:42 BST), about 63,000 miles above Earth.
OSIRIS-REx will embark on its next mission to the asteroid Apophis, arriving in 2029 before conducting 18 months of surveillance.
Meanwhile, the capsule will begin hurtling toward Earth’s upper atmosphere at 43,000 kilometers per hour (more than 15 times the speed of a rifle bullet) about four hours after separation.
This will produce a fireball in the sky, but a heat shield will protect the invaluable asteroid material inside while the capsule experiences forces of up to 32 times Earth’s gravity.
A braking parachute will then deploy at approximately 10:42 ET (15:42 BST) to slightly decelerate the capsule from hypersonic to subsonic speeds.
Shortly after, engineers should see it enter the airspace over the Department of Defense Utah Test and Training Range in the western Utah Desert at approximately 10:46 ET (15:46 BST).
Once the capsule reaches an altitude of 1.6 km (1 mile), its main parachute will deploy about eight minutes past the funnel.
This will slow the pack to 11mph before making what is expected to be a soft landing on the desert floor at around 10:55 ET (15:55 BST).
At this point, the capsule’s structural integrity will be checked before soil samples are taken and tested to rule out the possibility that Bennu’s material is contaminated by its impact with the Earth’s surface.
The sample will then be taken to a nearby mobile clean room for safekeeping until it can be transported to a new laboratory at NASA’s Johnson Space Center in Houston, which houses hundreds of pounds of lunar material collected by the 12 Apollo moonwalkers. .
OSIRIS-REx, an acronym for ‘Origins, Spectral Interpretation, Resource Identification, Security-Regolith Explorer’, became the first US mission to collect a sample from an asteroid when it briefly landed on Bennu in 2020 and collected material with its robotic arm. .
Returning home: The sample recovered by OSIRIS-REx will be returned to Earth and will land at the Utah Test and Training Range.
Huge: Bennu is about the size of the Empire State Building and is about 200 million kilometers from us.
The space rock is about the size of the Empire State Building and is about 200 million kilometers from us.
It is of great interest to scientists because it is believed to contain microscopic mineral grains that predate the solar system.
This carbon-rich material is also believed to contain the conserved building blocks of life and could help experts better understand how planets formed and how life originated on Earth.
The sample recovered by OSIRIS-REx is the largest by a NASA mission since the Apollo astronauts returned lunar rocks in the 1960s and 1970s.
OSIRIS-REx became the first American mission to collect a sample from an asteroid when it briefly landed on Bennu in October 2020 and collected material with its robotic arm.
Landing! NASA’s OSIRIS-REx spacecraft made its historic landing on Bennu in 2020
Its robotic arm acted as a pogo stick and bounced off the asteroid’s surface to pick up dirt and dust before the craft was launched back into space. A simulation of the landing is shown above.
NASA’S ‘ASTEROID AUTUMN’: MAILONLINE DElves INTO A TRIO OF EXCITING MISSIONS
It’s been billed as NASA’s “asteroid fall” and involves a trio of exciting missions that could answer some truly mind-blowing questions.
From offering clues about how life began on Earth, to discover the secrets of solar system, kMilestones for each journey will unfold over the next six weeks.
NASA’s ‘asteroid fall’: MailOnline delves into a trio of exciting missions that have key milestones over the next six weeks. They include the launch of a spacecraft that will head to a “$10 trillion rock” and the recovery of a sample of a 4.5 billion-year-old rock that could reveal how life on Earth began. There will also be a flyby of an asteroid near Jupiter
They include a rocket launch, a distant flyby between Jupiter and Mars and the recovery of ancient space rocks in the Utah desert that could contain ingredients for life.
Of the three, the liftoff of NASA’s Psyche spacecraft probably seems the most mundane, but not as fast.
It’s also a fascinating mission, setting out on a 4 billion kilometer (2.5 billion mile) journey to find out once and for all whether a metal-rich asteroid could really bring down the world’s economy.
Read more here.