A decade and $1.2 billion later, NASA reveals its Bennu loot: 121 grams

Zoom in / A view of eight samples containing the final material from the asteroid Bennu.

NASA/Erika Blumenfeld and Joseph Aebersold

After years of speculation, NASA Finally revealed On Thursday, the total of the asteroid sample that returned from Bennu to Earth last fall was 4.29 ounces (121.6 grams).

To put this number in perspective, the total mass is a little more than half a cup of sugar or a box of 100 paper clips. It's roughly the same mass as a small avocado, and you can't even spread it on toast.

So, it's, in a sense, a very small sample. Especially when you consider how far NASA and its partners have gone to recover it. The space agency's Goddard Space Flight Center worked with the University of Arizona and Lockheed Martin to build the OSIRIS-REx spacecraft for $800 million. It was launched in September 2016 on an Atlas V rocket, at an additional cost of $183.5 million. As it passed through the inner solar system and returned, NASA spent an additional $200 million on mission operations.

A can of tuna

Putting it all together, NASA has invested $1.2 billion, and the better part of a decade, to recover an amount of asteroid dust that could fit — comfortably — inside a small can of tuna.

But, as the saying goes, good things come in small packages. Although the sample is small, it is 20 times larger than the amount of asteroid material previously returned to Earth by two Japanese sample return missions. It'll go a little bit a long As scientists study the organics and other materials found in this asteroid dust to come up with divine clues about the origin of life and the conditions that existed at the dawn of our solar system. You don't need a bunch of materials to get a useful result from an electron microscope.

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Furthermore, sample recovery was twice the minimum required for the mission, 60 grams. Therefore, OSIRIS-REx can now be categorically classified as an unqualified success.

biding their time

The scientific community had to wait longer than expected to find out how much material OSIRIS-REx returned to Earth. While engineers and technicians at the Johnson Space Center in Houston were working to open the sample container last October, they ran into a snag due to two stubborn fasteners. Only after new tools were invented, the sample container was finally opened to reveal the tiny treasure in January.

In the coming weeks, some of Bennu's materials will be packaged and distributed to researchers for study. As part of the OSIRIS-REx mission, a group of more than 200 scientists around the world will explore the properties of the regolith, including researchers from several U.S. institutions, the Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency, and the Canadian Space Agency.

However, NASA intends to reserve about 70% of the material for future study.

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