Sept. 24 (Reuters) – A NASA space capsule carrying the largest soil sample ever ejected from the surface of an asteroid through Earth’s atmosphere on Sunday and parachuted into the Utah desert to deliver the celestial sample to scientists.
The gumdrop-shaped capsule was launched from the OSIRIS-REx robotic spacecraft as the mother vehicle passed 67,000 miles (107,826 km) from Earth hours earlier, touching down inside a designated landing zone west of Salt Lake City at the U.S. Army’s massive Utah testbed. Training scope.
The descent and final landing, shown on NASA’s live broadcast, marked the culmination of a six-year joint mission between the US space agency and the University of Arizona. This was only the third, and by far the largest, sample of asteroids to be sent to Earth for analysis, after two similar JAXA missions that ended in 2010 and 2020.
After landing, the capsule rested on the sandy ground in the Utah desert, a red-and-white parachute slowing its high-speed descent, coming to rest just feet away after it separated.
After some doubts about whether the primary chute had deployed correctly, the main chute opened as planned, resulting in a smooth, almost flawless landing of the capsule.
“We heard the discovery of the main chute, and I burst into tears,” Dante Lauretta, a University of Arizona scientist who has been involved in the project since its inception and watched the landing from a helicopter, said at a news conference.
“We landed as softly as a dove,” said Tim Brazier, one of the Lockheed Martin engineers on the project.
OSIRIS-REx collected its sample three years ago from Bennu, a small carbon-rich asteroid that was discovered in 1999. The space rock is classified as a “near-Earth object” because it passes relatively close to our planet every six years, although the odds of an impact are considered remote. .
Bennu appears to consist of a loose collection of rocks, like a pile of rubble, and is only 500 meters (547 yards) across, making it wider than the tall Empire State Building but small compared to the Chicxulub asteroid that struck Earth about 66 million years ago. Before the dinosaurs were eliminated.
Like other asteroids, Bennu is a remnant of the early solar system. Because its current chemistry and mineralogy are virtually unchanged since its formation about 4.5 billion years ago, it holds valuable clues about the origins and evolution of rocky planets like Earth.
It may even contain organic molecules similar to those necessary for the emergence of microbes.
Samples returned three years ago by the Japanese Hayabusa 2 mission from Ryugu, another near-Earth asteroid, were found to contain two organic compounds, supporting the hypothesis that celestial bodies such as comets, asteroids and meteorites that bombarded early Earth may have seeded the young planet with The basic components of life.
OSIRIS-REx launched in September 2016 and reached Bennu in 2018, then spent nearly two years orbiting the asteroid before getting close enough to grab a sample of the bulk surface material with its robotic arm on October 20, 2020.
The spacecraft left Bennu in May 2021 on a 1.2 billion-mile (1.9 billion km) cruise to Earth, including two orbits around the sun.
The capsule reached the upper atmosphere at 35 times the speed of sound about 13 minutes before landing, glowing red hot as it descended toward Earth and temperatures on its heat shield reached 5,000 degrees Fahrenheit (2,800 degrees Celsius).
Bennu’s sample was estimated at 250 grams (8.8 ounces), far exceeding the 5 grams transported from Ryugu in 2020 or the small sample delivered from asteroid Itokawa in 2010.
A team of scientists and technicians stood to retrieve the capsule and try to keep the sample free of any ground contamination.
The dark capsule and its precious contents were flown by helicopter to a “clean room” at the Utah Test Range for initial inspection. It will be flown Monday on a military transport plane to NASA’s Johnson Space Center in Houston, where the canister will be opened Tuesday in order to split the samples into smaller samples promised by about 200 scientists in 60 laboratories around the world.
Meanwhile, the main body of the OSIRIS-REx spacecraft is expected to set sail to explore Apophis, another near-Earth asteroid.
(Reporting by Steve Gorman in Los Angeles, Maria Caspani in New York, and Daniel Trotta in Carlsbad, California – Prepared by Muhammad for the Arabic Bulletin) Editing by Rosalba O’Brien, Matthew Lewis, Donna Bryson and Mark Porter
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