NASA reveals first look at asteroid sample from Osirus-Rex mission

NASA shared a first glimpse of the dusty extraterrestrial treasure retrieved in its $1 billion Osiris-Rex asteroid sample mission during a Wednesday event, but the real cosmic cache remains to be unveiled.

Scientists have been collecting and analyzing material found outside the actual sample container since shortly after the small space capsule was flown to Johnson Space Center in Houston, just a day after a successful landing in Utah’s west desert just over two weeks ago.

NASA video showed a small drift of dark, craggy stones and dust on the lid sealing in the main sample.

NASA Administrator Bill Nelson said early analyses of material captured in the Osiris-Rex mission, which launched seven years ago and traveled nearly 4 billion miles before flying by Earth on Sept. 24 to release its sample return capsule, are showing extraordinary results.

“The first analyses show samples that contain abundant water in the form of hydrated clay minerals. And they contain carbon,” Nelson said. “The carbon and water molecules are exactly the kind of material that we wanted to find. They’re crucial elements in the formation of our own planet. And they’re going to help us determine the origin of elements that could have led to life.”

NASA scientists stressed that tests conducted so far on a small amount of material that didn’t make it into the sample container represent only the very early steps of a process that will likely stretch into decades of research. And, experts at Johnson Space Center’s Astromaterials Research & Science Exploration division have yet to open the sealed sample container inside the capsule, which they believe holds as much as a cup or so of asteroid material.

Just before 9 a.m. local time on Sept. 24, mission specialists confirmed the Osiris-Rex sample return capsule had landed successfully inside the boundaries of the Defense Department’s Utah Test and Training Range, about 80 miles southeast of Salt Lake City.

The diminutive pod, measuring about 1 12 feet by 3 feet and weighing in at around 120 pounds, was charred black after scorching through Earth’s upper atmosphere at more than 27,000 mph and experiencing forces 32 times stronger than the planet’s natural gravity before a bright orange and white parachute deployed, slowing the capsule from hypersonic speed down at a leisurely 11 mph before landing.

The Osiris-Rex mission launched from Earth in 2016 on a journey that brought it to an orbit around Bennu in 2018. Bennu is a near-Earth asteroid, meaning it is on a path that orbits the sun. Bennu’s trek around the sun takes 435 days but every six years the asteroid passes relatively close — within about 186,000 miles — to Earth. For reference, that’s closer to Terra Prime than the moon. Ahead of the opportunity to evaluate material from Bennu, scientists have a wealth of information gathered by Osiris-Rex over the two years it circled and observed the asteroid.

NASA estimates the material sample will come in at just under 9 ounces. About 70% of the material will be saved for future study and the remainder will be shared among more than 200 researchers at 35 institutions around the world, including some at London’s Natural History Museum.

“OSIRIS-REx spent over two years studying asteroid Bennu, finding evidence for organics and minerals chemically altered by water,” wrote Ashley King, UKRI Future Leaders Fellow, Natural History Museum, in a web posting just before the landing last month. “These are crucial ingredients for understanding the formation of planets like Earth, so we’re delighted to be among the first researchers to study samples returned from Bennu.”

Osiris-Rex extended a vacuum tube to grab a material sample from Bennu in 2020, punching into the asteroid’s soft surface without actually landing on the space body, which is a loose amalgam of rocks, dust and debris held together by gravitational force. The dust and rubble captured by the Osiris-Rex mission from the Bennu asteroid, a top-shaped space rock that’s about one-third of a mile wide, isn’t just any random cosmic crud. The material that makes up Bennu is rich with carbon and possible organic compounds and is believed to be as old as the solar system itself. 

NASA’s Astromaterials Research & Science Exploration division has been in operation since 1969, the year the Apollo 11 mission, the first to land humans on the moon, brought back the first geologic samples from Earth’s sole satellite. The material included nearly 50 pounds of rocks, regolith (essentially, lunar soil) and core samples gathered by astronauts Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin while on the surface of the moon.

The ARES scientists will complete a cataloging of the Bennu material and publish results of those efforts in about six months, according to NASA. At that time, investigators outside the Osiris-Rex science team will be able to request samples for research.

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