A NASA spacecraft that was launched seven years ago is scheduled to touch down in the Utah desert on Sunday. This spacecraft, called Osiris-REx, has successfully collected rocks and debris from a space rock named Bennu. It is carrying the largest-ever sample from an asteroid. The landing process will involve the larger section of NASA’s craft speeding by the Earth and launching a smaller landing craft that contains the collected sample.
According to Dante Lauretta, the principal investigator for Osiris-REx, objects like Bennu could have played a role in making Earth habitable. Lauretta, who is also a professor of planetary science and cosmochemistry at the University of Arizona, believes that asteroids like Bennu might have delivered important elements like ocean water, atmospheric molecules, and even organic materials that sparked the origin of life on our planet.
The capsule containing the sample is expected to complete its descent by 11 a.m. Eastern Time. It is worth noting that previous asteroid missions conducted by Japan have only recovered samples of about 50 grams. In contrast, the U.S. mission is anticipated to return with a much larger sample of around 250 grams.
To keep the public engaged, NASA plans to livestream Osiris-REx’s descent on its website. Once the sample is released and headed towards Earth, the larger craft will continue its journey towards another asteroid named Aphophis. This subsequent expedition is projected to take six years. After touchdown, NASA will retrieve the object and transport it to a specialized cleaning center. The sample will be meticulously disassembled before being transported to NASA’s Johnson Space Center, where space rock studies are conducted.
These missions are of great importance as they provide valuable information about asteroids and their potential impacts on Earth. “Sooner or later, one of these objects is going to hit the Earth. So you want to know as much about them as you can if you want to do any mitigation,” explains Thomas Burbine, a planetary scientist and director of the Williston Observatory at Mount Holyoke College. In terms of potential danger, Lauretta identifies Bennu as the most “potentially hazardous” asteroid in our solar system, with a less than 0.05% chance of colliding with Earth in the late next century.