It took seven years, during which he traveled hundreds of millions of kilometers in the solar system. It is best to compare NASA’s Osiris-Rex probe with its cosmic counterpart of delivery services like PostNL or DHL. But in the end, his bag full of grains and gravel, hanging from the parachutes, landed hard on the desert floor in the US state of Utah just before 5pm Dutch time.
Loud cheers went up in the NASA control room after the successful landing. Because although the organization had previously landed robotic cars on Mars, and more recently – people on the moon, this was the first time it welcomed a mission back to our planet after such a long journey.
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Describes George Van Hal De Volkskrant About astronomy, physics and space travel. He published books on everything from the universe to the smallest, most basic elements of reality.
It lit up like a fireball
In Utah, rescue teams received material from the distant asteroid Bennu, which recently moved into the desert by helicopter toward the landing site. The landing took place a few minutes earlier than planned because the parachutes had already deployed much higher above the ground than planned, but this had no further effect on the landing.
About fifteen minutes later, confirmation came that helicopters had found the exact location of the capsule in the large landing zone measuring approximately 60 x 15 kilometers and the recovery process could begin.
Moments earlier, the same beam was still in the Earth’s atmosphere, flying through it at an amazing speed of 44.5 thousand kilometers per hour. At that speed, friction with the atmosphere caused heat to build up to the point that the external temperature of the capsule that transported the beam to Earth rose to about 2,700 degrees Celsius, causing it to glow like a fireball.
That package contains about 250 grams of original extraterrestrial material, a cosmic record. Because although OSIRIS-REx is not the first mission to successfully remove gravel from a distant asteroid, it is the absolute record holder. The Japanese probe Hayabusa 2, which collected the largest amount to date, collected a relatively modest amount of 5.4 grams in 2020, from the asteroid Ryugu. Only the US Apollo lunar missions, and more recently the Chinese Chang’e 5 lunar mission, have so far brought larger amounts of extraterrestrial material to our planet.
Scientists are interested in materials extracted from asteroids such as Bennu because they are remnants of the planet formation process from the early days of our solar system. Asteroids are the lumps left over from the mixing bowl in which Earth and the other planets were kneaded 4.5 billion years ago. Inside you’ll find the remains of that relatively untouched dough. By studying such materials, preferably in a well-equipped laboratory on Earth, scientists can learn more about our planet’s origins.
Immediately after recovery, the material is sent to a specially designed clean room at Johnson Space Center in Houston, where it is examined and packaged to be sent to various laboratories for analysis. Some of the materials will also be stored, so that future generations, with new measuring equipment and new scientific questions, can use them as well.
The Osiris-Rex probe, which sent the beam when it was still about 102,000 kilometers from Earth, has not yet finished exploring distant asteroids. The probe – under a different name, Osiris Apex – is now flying further towards the asteroid Apophis, an infamous space rock measuring 370 meters in diameter that will approach Earth to a distance of about 32,000 kilometers around 2029, just a tenth of the distance from Earth. Distance to the moon. This closed corridor provides a unique opportunity to give the now dormant probe a new research destination.
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