Sunday’s landing is the finale of the seven-year, 6.3 million-kilometer journey of the OSIRIS-REx space probe, which collected samples from the asteroid Bennu – one of the objects potentially dangerous to Earth. This is not the first time in history that samples from an asteroid reach Earth, as two such missions were previously carried out by the Japanese. However, then a microscopic amount of material was collected in the first one, and only about a teaspoon of samples was collected in the second one.
These samples are a priceless piece of history. What will happen to them now?
The OSIRIS-REx mission spacecraft did not land on Earth, but it jettisoned the capsule containing the Bennu material container and it landed safely on Earth with the help of parachutes. More specifically, in the Utah desert. NASA researchers checked at the landing site whether the capsule was safe for the “recovery” team.
The capsule was then attached to a helicopter and transported to a temporary location at the Utah Test and Training Range. She was placed in the so-called clean room, where it was prepared for further transport to the NASA Johnson Space Center in Houston, Texas.
One step in the process was to subject the samples to a treatment NASA calls “nitrogen purge.” The idea is to pump nitrogen into the tank, which does not react with most elements and chemical compounds. Thus, scientists wanted to exclude the possibility of “contaminating” the priceless samples, for example with oxygen in the air.
A capsule with samples from the OSIRIS-REx mission landed on Earth photo: Keegan Barber/NASA via AP
On Monday, the capsule was transported by plane to Houston, where scientists, in sterile conditions, will for the first time open the container containing about 250 grams of priceless material. We will only find out exactly how many rock samples were collected at this stage, when – after removing them from the capsule – the contents are weighed and recorded.
Finally, the asteroid fragments will be separated and given to scientists for research purposes. Over the next year, some of the samples are to be sent to approximately 200 teams from around the world. About 70 percent however, the contents of the container will be secured and preserved for many decades. They should be opened at a time when scientists will have much greater knowledge and technological capabilities than today. The same was done with samples from the Moon brought over 50 years ago. Some of them were decontained and submitted for testing only last year.
Why are 250 grams of rock so interesting to researchers?
Scientists can’t wait to start work, because the material transported to Earth from the Bennu asteroid is unique, currently incomparable even to that which astronauts brought from the Moon more than five decades ago. The contents of the container are a real time machine, allowing researchers to travel back 4.6 billion years, i.e. to the time when the Solar System was just forming. The surface of Bennu is covered with rocks that have remained untouched since then. Some researchers even consider the possible presence on Bennu of material that came there from outside our planetary system, and therefore may be even older. Scientists will test the samples, among other things, for the presence of water and check their chemical composition, and this research will help better understand the formation and evolution of the Solar System, including the Earth on which we live.
Perhaps it will be possible to determine how water came to be on our planet and what made it an ideal world for the development of living organisms. Researchers call it an unprecedented opportunity to explore our distant past. As Dante Lauretta from the OSIRIS-REx team put it, the recovery of the sample container is “a milestone not only for the OSIRIS-REx team, but for all of science.”
A capsule with samples from the OSIRIS-REx mission landed on Earth photo: NASA via AP
The Bennu Stones will not cause a cosmic epidemic. Scientists calm down
Scientists interviewed by the industry are also calm about the possible unwanted contents of the container transported from Bennu. As they claim, there is no evidence that the samples contained any biological material that could, for example, cause an epidemic. Bennu is supposed to be only a dry and dead rock, which – as researchers suspect – does not contain even trace amounts of water. Conditions on the asteroid’s surface are also extremely unsuitable for supporting life.
As Jason Dworkin from the OSIRIS-REx team stated in an interview with the website, “there are no biological objects on Bennu, but – even if there were – they are already on Earth.” At least several meteorites have been discovered on our planet, which – it is believed – reached our planet after breaking away from the asteroid Bennu. “So there is no reason for any anxiety or concern,” explains the scientist.
Michelle Thompson from Purdue University in Indiana has a similar opinion, saying that on Bennu “we won’t find life itself, but we will certainly look at the elements from which life could have evolved.”
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