Against all odds, NASA has achieved what many would have deemed impossible just a few decades ago.
The agency’s spacecraft has flown to an asteroid known as ‘Bennu’, collected a sample of its rocky surface and returned home – a round trip of 3.86 billion miles.
Within two hours of touchdown on Sunday, the capsule was inside a temporary clean room at the Defense Department’s Utah Test and Training Range, having been hoisted there by helicopter.
But in a sense the ‘OSIRIS-REx’ mission is only getting started – scientists will start to analyse the 250g of rocks and dust for clues about the history of the solar system.
Today, the sealed sample canister will be flown to NASA’s Johnson Space Center in Houston, Texas, where it will be opened in a new, specially designed lab.
A helicopter delivers a space capsule carrying NASA’s first asteroid samples on Sunday to a temporary clean room at Dugway Proving Ground, in Utah. The Osiris-Rex spacecraft released the capsule following a seven-year journey to asteroid Bennu and back
‘Delivering samples from Bennu to Earth is a triumph of collaborative ingenuity and a testament to what we can accomplish when we unite with a common purpose,’ said Dante Lauretta, principal investigator for OSIRIS-REx at the University of Arizona, Tucson.
‘But let’s not forget – while this may feel like the end of an incredible chapter, it’s truly just the beginning of another.
‘We now have the unprecedented opportunity to analyse these samples and delve deeper into the secrets of our solar system.’
The precious Bennu sample – an estimated 8.8 ounces, or 250 grams of rocky material – is still sealed inside a capsule that looks like a miniature UFO.
Following its arrival at Johnson Space Center in Texas, scientists will disassemble the capsule, extract and weigh the sample, create an inventory of the rocks and dust, and, over time, distribute pieces of Bennu to scientists worldwide.
A quarter of the sample will be given to a group of more than 200 people from 38 globally distributed institutions, including a team of scientists from the University of Manchester and the Natural History Museum in London.
‘We’re excited to receive samples in the coming weeks and months, and to begin analysing them and see what secrets asteroid Bennu holds,’ said Dr Sarah Crowther at the University of Manchester.
NASA plans to announce its first results from the Bennu sample analysis at a news conference on October 11.
In this photo provided by NASA, the sample return capsule from NASA’s Osiris-Rex mission lies on the ground shortly after touching down in the desert, at the Department of Defense’s Utah Test and Training Range on Sunday, Sept. 24, 2023
In this image from video released by NASA, the Osiris-Rex spacecraft touches the surface of asteroid Bennu on October 20, 2020. The craft later departed for Earth in May 2021
This image, taken by NASA’s Osiris-Rex probe in December 2018, shows the C-type asteroid Bennu – described as ‘potentially hazardous’
OSIRIS-REx mission history
It was back in September 2016 that NASA launched its OSIRIS-REx spacecraft from Cape Canaveral, Florida.
It arrived at Bennu in December 2018 and mapped the asteroid for almost two years, before finally collecting a sample from the surface in October 2020.
It departed in May 2021 before landing back to Earth – on a a remote expanse of military land in Utah – on Sunday (September 24).
Bennu is so revered by NASA because it’s thought to represent a leftover ‘building block’ of our solar system’s rocky planets – Mercury, Venus, Earth, and Mars.
Asteroids are potentially a snapshot of what these planets were like at the time of their formation.
‘Asteroids are leftovers rocky material from the time of the solar system formation,’ Fred Jourdan, a planetary scientist at Curtin University in Australia, told Space.com.
‘They are the initial bricks that built the planets.’
Bennu is defined as a carbonaceous chondrite (C-type) asteroid, a group that makes up around 75 per of all known asteroids in the solar system – more than any other type.
C-types are darker than other asteroids due to the presence of carbon and are some of the most ancient objects in the solar system – dating back to its birth.
According to experts, volatile-rich C-types, such as Bennu, have been relatively untouched since they were formed billions of years ago.
Bennu is thought to have formed in the first 10 million years of our solar system’s history – so more than 4.5 billion years ago.
Professor Nick Timms at Curtin University thinks the will Bennu sample could contain ‘molecular precursors’ to the origin of life.
Bennu has a diameter of 1,722 feet (492 metres), which is a bit larger than the height of the Empire State Building in New York
In this photo provided by NASA, experts prepare the sample return capsule from NASA’s Osiris-Rex mission for transport on Sunday
The spacecraft launched on September 8, 2016 and arrived at Bennu in December 2018. After mapping the asteroid for almost two years, it collected a sample from the surface on October 20, 2020 before landing on Sunday (September 24, 2023)
Asteroids in our solar system
According to NASA the three main types are labelled C, S and M.
C-type (chondrite) asteroids are the most common in the solar system and likely consist of clay and silicate rocks.
They are darker than other asteroids and the most ancient objects in the solar system – dating back to its birth.
S-type (stony) asteroids are made of silicate materials as well as nickel-iron and are the most common visitors to the Earth of the asteroid types.
M-type (nickel-iron) asteroids vary depending on how far from the sun they formed.
Some are partly melted with iron sinking to the centre and forcing volcanic lava to the surface.
Due to the prevalence of C-type asteroids, information gleaned from Bennu is likely to be applicable to many other asteroids in the solar system.
‘These samples are some of the most pristine rocks available,’ Professor Timms said.
‘Unlike natural meteor falls that can quickly become contaminated by our atmosphere, water and biota, these rocks are unblemished.
‘So, with Bennu we will be analysing unspoilt samples of the oldest objects in the solar system.
‘We’ll be able to tell a huge amount about what happened when the solar system was nothing more than dust and gas, and the processes that brought planets together and created the ingredients for life on Earth.’
Bennu orbits the sun every 437 days and every six years makes a close approach to Earth – making it a ‘potentially hazardous object’
Bennu has a very small chance of hitting Earth in the next century, which would ‘be like unleashing 24 atomic bombs’, according to an expert.
Studying a sample of it can scientists learn more about its composition and in turn identify ways to be prepared to defend against an impact.
NASA has already been working on methods of deflecting an asteroid that poses a threat, using Bennu as a model.
Technicians in a clean room examine the sample return capsule from NASA’s Osiris-Rex mission after it landed at the Department of Defense’s Utah Test and Training Range on Sunday
This mosaic of Bennu was created from multiple images using observations by NASA’s OSIRIS-REx spacecraft. Although there is a slight chance Bennu will smash into Earth over the next three centuries, NASA notes there is more than a 99.9 percent probability it will not
According to NASA results so far, an asteroid like Bennu that is rich in carbon could need several small bumps to charge its course.
The successful return of the OSIRIS-REx sample marks a year since a similarly astounding NASA mission – the Double Asteroid Redirection Test (DART), which deliberately smashed a spacecraft into a space rock.
DART was launched from California in November 2021 – and finally completed its 10-month journey when it hit the asteroid Dimorphos on September 26, 2022.
Neither Dimorphos nor its Didymos pose any danger to Earth; rather, the $325 million (£298 million) mission was a rehearsal of what may be required if a space rock does one day threaten our planet.
But Bennu is much closer and could therefore be the target of an urgent deflection mission in the next few centuries.
NASA’s ‘ASTEROID AUTUMN’: MAILONLINE DELVES INTO A TRIO OF EXCITING MISSIONS
It has been billed as NASA’s ‘asteroid autumn’ and involves a trio of exciting missions that could answer some truly mind-boggling questions.
From offering clues to how life on Earth began, to unlocking the secrets of the solar system, key milestones for each voyage are due to play out over the next six weeks.
NASA’s ‘asteroid autumn’: MailOnline delves into a trio of exciting missions that have key milestones over the next six weeks. They include the launch of a spacecraft that is going to a ‘$10,000 quadrillion pace rock’, to retrieving a sample from a 4.5 billion-year-old rock that could reveal how life on Earth began. There will also be a fly-by of an asteroid out near Jupiter
They include one rocket launch, a distant fly-by between Jupiter and Mars, and the recovery of ancient space rocks in the Utah desert that could contain the ingredients for life.
Of the three, the lift-off of NASA’s Psyche spacecraft probably sounds the most mundane — but no so fast.
That is also a fascinating mission, because it is setting off on a 2.5 billion-mile (4 billion-kilometre) journey to find out once and for all if a metal-rich asteroid really could bring down the world’s economy.
Read more here.