NASA’s OSIRIS-REx spacecraft is scheduled to release a package containing samples collected from the carbon-rich asteroid Bennu in the American desert this Sunday. The choice to study Bennu was driven by its unique composition, significantly different from most asteroids, which are primarily made of rock. As the spacecraft passed through a treacherous environment of loose gravel and pebbles, concerns arose about its safety. However, the successful collection of regolith—surface rubble—from Bennu has generated excitement among scientists as they eagerly anticipate the analysis of the samples.
Chemical engineer Solveig Irvine from NASA’s Marshall Space Flight Center explained the importance of these samples during a recent press conference. By studying the composition of Bennu, scientists aim to gain insights into Earth’s ancient microbiology and chemistry, shedding light on the evolution of life on our planet. Additionally, the study of regolith from space without it being burned up in the atmosphere could provide valuable information about extraterrestrial chemistry and the potential origins of life.
The OSIRIS-REx mission, managed by NASA’s Marshall Space Flight Center, faced numerous challenges since its inception in 2011. The teams from the University of Arizona, Lockheed, and Goddard Space Center embarked on a mission to sample a C-type asteroid, which predominantly consists of carbon. Despite uncertainties regarding the quantity of the collected sample, the mission has been a success, providing a vast amount of valuable data for further analysis.
While the scheduled landing of the sample in the Arizona desert may seem challenging due to the nature of a fly-by spacecraft, NASA’s navigation team has displayed remarkable precision throughout the mission. By conducting necessary adjustment maneuvers, the team has ensured that the spacecraft is accurately aligned with the intended landing area. This feat of navigation gives scientists confidence in the spacecraft’s capability to deliver the sample as planned.
The OSIRIS-REx mission highlights the complementary nature of human spaceflight and robotic missions. While human spaceflight provides a hands-on experience and allows for adaptability, smaller robotic spacecraft offer continuous data collection without the need for rest. Moreover, these robotic missions are more cost-effective, making them easier to launch and operate. Combining the advantages of both approaches allows for a broader scope of exploration.
Once the sample is collected, it will be transported to Johnson Space Center in Texas for curation. Approximately 75% of the sample will be stored for future scientists, while the remaining 25% will be allocated to the OSIRIS-REx team for analysis. The team consists of world-class scientists who will conduct various examinations and investigations on the collected samples.
The engineers and scientists involved in the mission have developed a personal attachment to the OSIRIS-REx spacecraft, affectionately nicknamed O-Rex. They view the spacecraft as a cherished entity, eagerly anticipating its next endeavors. With their expertise and dedication, NASA’s team has exhibited their commitment to understanding our origins and exploring the mysteries of the universe.
– NASA’s Marshall Space Flight Center
– University of Arizona
– Goddard Space Center