NASA’s OSIRIS-REx probe brings samples from asteroid Bennu to Earth

NASA’s OSIRIS-REx probe brings samples from asteroid Bennu to Earth

Credits: NASA/Kegan Barber.

After a trip more 6 billion kilometersThe probe’s mission has been completed Osiris-Rex from NASA What a Sunday September 24, 2023 I managed to get off and land in a desert Utah A capsule containing materials collected from the asteroid Pino. This is the largest sample of an asteroid that our species has ever been able to return to Earth.

This material, which has remained intact since the formation of the solar system, will help scientists better understand the formation and formation processes of the solar system itself. AsteroidsIt is also useful for understanding how to defend oneself from potentially catastrophic impacts. Let’s see together the details of the mission, how the material sample was obtained and from which asteroid it was extracted.

What does the OSIRIS-REx mission consist of?

Osiris Rex It’s a space mission for NASA From the program new Horizons. I started to 2016The main goal of the mission is to study and collect samples of…Asteroid BennuThen return them to Earth to conduct in-depth laboratory analyzes on them.

The OSIRIS-REx probe is in the final stages of assembly at NASA’s Kennedy Space Center. Credits: NASA/Kim Shifflett.

The probe reached the asteroid Bennu at the end of the year 2018 After a good trip Two years And different Hundreds of millions of kilometers To fit into the orbit around it. Here began the second phase of the long-term mission 500 days Which involved mapping the entire asteroid in search of the best location to approach the surface to collect samples. Thanks to the probe’s very close distance to the asteroid, approx 5 kilometersNASA was able to obtain very detailed images of Bennu, which helped in studying the asteroid and choosing the rendezvous site.

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The OSIRIS-REx probe is equipped with several scientific instruments to produce images of the asteroid and analyze its chemical composition. It is equipped three rooms To map Bennu’s surface at high resolution, detect any gaseous emissions, and document the asteroid’s sample collection in real time. OSIRIS-REx is also equipped with Visible, infrared and X-ray spectrometers To reveal the chemical composition of Bennu’s surface, draw a heat map of it, and study the interaction of the solar wind with the surface.

Meeting with Benno

OSIRIS-REx’s approach to Bennu’s surface took place to sample rocks October 20, 2020. The probe didn’t actually land on the asteroid, but it did Come closer Even surface samples can be taken through Robotic arm It is 3 meters long and equipped with what looks like a vacuum cleaner. Thus the arm was able to collect a A sample of about 250 grams of regolithThat is, the heterogeneous mixture of dust and rock that characterizes rocky bodies in the solar system. The aspirator equipped with the robotic arm was so effective in collecting samples that scientists had to attempt to close the container several times due to excess material present.

Real images of the sampling phase of the asteroid Bennu by the robotic arm of the OSIRIS-REx probe. Image source: NASA/Goddard/University of Arizona.

The probe then began its two-year return journey to Earth in April 2021 to make its closest approach to our planet September 24, 2023. In return, the probe released the capsule containing the asteroid samples, which entered the atmosphere at approx 45,000 kilometers per hour Then I landed in the Utah desert, strapped into a parachute. The capsule was then transferred to… Johnson Space Center To allow precious samples to be analyzed with the best tools available to the scientific community.

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The future of the OSIRIS-REx mission

However, the OSIRIX-REx story does not end here. In fact, NASA decided to extend the mission and rename it, Osiris-Apexwhere APEX stands for “Apophis Explorer”. As can be understood from the abbreviation, the goal of the expanded mission isAsteroid Apophisa group of Its diameter is 370 meters Find out in 2004. Apophis’ choice has to do with his nature Near-Earth asteroidOr asteroids that intersect Earth’s orbit. Apophis, in particular, has made headlines because, according to preliminary orbital calculations, A Tangible possibility To influence the Earth in 2029 During the next close encounter between the two bodies. This probability has been revised downwards by new telescopic observations, to the point that, according to scientists, the probability of colliding with Earth in the next 100 years is close to zero.

What is the asteroid Bennu made of?

Asteroid Bennu is one of the asteroids Apollo group, named after the first asteroid of this type discovered. It is characterized by the presence of Perihelion (minimum distance from the sun) is less than the apogee (maximum distance from the sun) of the Earth. This means that the Apollo group asteroids are objects capable of entering into a collision course with our planet. In particular, according to the latest calculations, Bennu has One chance in 1750 To influence the ground between 2178 And the 2290.

Animation of the rotation of asteroid Bennu created using images captured by the OSIRIS-REx probe. Image source: NASA/Goddard/University of Arizona.

Bennu was discovered in 1999 It is believed that A fragment A larger body that was destroyed in the early stages of the formation of the solar system by colliding with another body of the same size. It revolves around the sun in 1.19 years Thus, it intersects the Earth’s orbit until it is almost close 480,000 km From our planet, just at the distance of the Earth and the Moon. With each approach comes Bennu’s orbit A little annoyedThat’s why knowing its composition, mass and shape helps predict whether the new orbital configuration assumed by Bennu will put it on a collision course with Earth. Beno has a shape Almost spherical Diameter approx 500 metres It is a typical example of Carbonaceous asteroidThat is, it is characterized by rocks with a high percentage of carbon, as can be seen from its dark and rough surface covered by the rocks.

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Why is it important to study asteroids?

The importance of studying asteroids lies in the fact that they are real Time capsules. In fact, they have remained almost intact since the formation of the solar system, providing us with invaluable information about the primordial material from which planets and satellites were formed. Bennu also has a significant portion of waterfall They are sometimes emitted in the form of jets of particles due to fractures in the asteroid’s surface or the impact of a small meteorite.

Moreover, according to scientists, asteroids are also of fundamental importance to planet EarthOrigin of life: It is actually thought that they may be responsible for a portion of the organic molecules and water that fell on Earth in the first billion years after its formation.

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