A NASA capsule is set to land in the Utah desert, carrying the largest asteroid samples ever collected. This mission, known as Osiris-Rex, collected about nine ounces (250 grams) of dust from the asteroid Bennu, and scientists are hopeful that these samples will provide valuable insights into the formation of the solar system and the habitability of Earth.
The descent of the Osiris-Rex capsule through Earth’s atmosphere will be challenging, but NASA aims for a soft landing in a military test range in northwestern Utah. The capsule will be released from an altitude of over 67,000 miles (108,000 kilometers) and will experience a fiery passage through the atmosphere in the last 13 minutes of its descent. It will then be slowed by parachutes, with a “hard landing” as a worst-case scenario if the parachutes fail.
Upon landing, a team will quickly transfer the capsule to a clean room to avoid contamination with desert sands. The sample will then be airlifted to NASA’s Johnson Space Center in Houston, Texas, where it will be carefully analyzed.
Asteroid samples are valuable because they contain original materials from the early solar system, providing insights into its formation and evolution. Scientists believe that asteroids may have delivered organic material and water to Earth, contributing to the development of life. Bennu, the asteroid sampled by Osiris-Rex, is of particular interest due to its carbon-rich composition and water molecules locked in minerals.
While there is a slight, though unlikely, chance that Bennu could collide with Earth in the distant future, NASA’s success in altering an asteroid’s course through a probe collision test offers hope for planetary defense efforts if such a situation were to arise.