Sept 24 (Reuters) – A NASA space capsule carrying the largest soil sample from the surface of an asteroid that penetrated Earth’s atmosphere on Sunday delivered a sky sample to scientists by parachute over the Utah desert.
The gumdrop-shaped capsule, launched from the robotic spacecraft OSIRIS-REx, passed 67,000 miles (107,826 km) from Earth before the mothership touched down inside a designated landing zone west of Salt Lake City in the U.S. military’s sprawling Utah test. Training range.
The final descent and landing, shown on a NASA livestream, concluded a six-year joint mission between the US space agency and the University of Arizona. This is the third asteroid sample and the largest ever returned to Earth for study, following two similar missions by Japan’s space agency that ended in 2010 and 2020.
After touchdown, the capsule nosed down on the sandy floor of the Utah desert, a red and white parachute slowing its high-speed descent, coming to rest feet away after it separated.
After some doubt as to whether the preliminary chute was deployed correctly, the main chute deployed as planned, bringing the capsule to a smooth and nearly flawless landing.
“When we heard that the main collapse had been discovered, I was literally in tears,” University of Arizona scientist Dante Lauretta, who has been involved in the project since its inception and watched it descend from a helicopter, told a news conference.
Lockheed Martin engineer Tim Pricer said, “We’re as soft-touch as a dove.”
OSIRIS-REx collected its sample three years ago from Bennu, a small, carbon-rich asteroid discovered in 1999. The space rock is classified as a “near-Earth object” because it passes close to our planet every six years. The odds of an impact are considered remote.
Composed of a collection of loose rocks like a rubble pile, Bennu is 500 meters (547 yards) across, wider than the Empire State Building, and tall but small compared to the Chicxulub asteroid that struck Earth 66 million years ago. Before, it wiped out the dinosaurs.
Like other asteroids, Bennu is a relic of the early Solar System. Since its present-day chemistry and mineralogy are virtually unchanged from those formed 4.5 billion years ago, it holds valuable clues to the origin and development of rocky planets like Earth.
It may also contain organic molecules necessary for the growth of microorganisms.
Samples returned three years ago by the Japanese mission Hayabusa 2 from Ryuku, another near-Earth asteroid, were found to contain two organic compounds, confirming the hypothesis that celestial bodies such as comets, asteroids and meteors bombarded Earth early and seeded the young planet. Basic materials for life.
OSIRIS-REx was launched in September 2016 and reached Bennu in 2018, then on Oct. 20, 2020, spent nearly two years orbiting the asteroid before getting close enough to pluck a sample of loose surface material with its robotic arm.
The spacecraft returned to Earth from Bennu in May 2021 for a 1.2 billion mile (1.9 billion km) journey, including two orbits around the Sun.
Hitting the atmosphere at 35 times the speed of sound about 13 minutes before landing, the capsule glowed red hot as it plunged toward Earth and the temperature of its heat shield reached 5,000 degrees Fahrenheit (2,800 C).
The Bennu sample weighs 250 grams (8.8 ounces), which is larger than the 5 grams taken from Ryugu in 2020 or the smaller sample delivered from asteroid Itokawa in 2010.
A rescue team of scientists and technicians attempted to recover the capsule and keep the specimen free of any terrestrial contamination.
The dark capsule and its precious contents were transported by helicopter to a “clean room” at the Utah Test Range for initial testing. On Monday it will be flown on a military transport plane to NASA’s Johnson Space Center in Houston, where the vial will be opened on Tuesday, where the samples will be parceled out as small samples, promised to 200 scientists at 60 laboratories around the world.
Meanwhile, the main body of the OSIRIS-REx spacecraft is expected to travel to explore Apophis, another near-Earth asteroid.
Reporting by Steve Gorman in Los Angeles, Maria Gaspani in New York and Daniel Trotta in Carlsbad, California; Editing by Rosalpa O’Brien, Matthew Lewis, Donna Bryson and Mark Porter
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