Osiris-Rex: A Closer Look At The Mission That Brought An Asteroid To Earth

Chasing a Carbon-Rich Time Capsule in Space

Imagine a rock older than our planet, holding clues to the origins of life and the building blocks of our solar system. This isn’t science fiction; it’s the reality of asteroid Bennu.

In September of 1999, nearly 23 years ago, scientists at NASA found an asteroid close to Jupiter’s rings. The carbon- rich asteroid named Bennu comprised of materials as old as our Solar System. Nearly two decades later, scientists have sent a spacecraft to this asteroid to collect surface material and bring it back for further studies. They hope to answer questions about the creation of our Solar System. Bennu has been visited by a spacecraft under the OSIRIS-Rex mission. OSIRIS-REx stands for” Origins, Spectral Interpretation, Resource Identification, and Security- Regolith Explorer”.

This mission gives us information on the origins of our solar system and what materials were present in space before life came to Earth. This mission also helps us go a step further into asteroid exploration. Getting comfortable with asteroids means easy access to resources that we need, ease of future travel between planets and getting answers to our questions about the history and origin of the solar system. Carbon is an element crucial to life on Earth. Studying a resource that sustains all life imaginable helps get a clear picture of the existence of biodiversity on our planet Earth.

Why Bennu? A Perfect Treasure Chest in the Cosmic Ocean

Scientists want to peek inside Bennu because it holds pure samples that have not changed much over time- making it a perfect choice to study the composition of our early solar system. By collecting samples from Bennu, scientists can compare them with other space rocks and planets to learn exciting things about how our solar system began. It’s like going on a space treasure hunt to unlock the secrets of the past!

Out of the countless asteroids, NASA chose Bennu for several simple reasons.

Bennu is within a convenient distance from our planet(roughly 0.8 to 1.6 au) and close enough to reach in a short period of time. It also passes by Earth once every six years. This gives scientists have had a decent amount of time to understand Bennu.

Scientists are aware of the age of Bennu, which is roughly the same as that of the solar system, what materials are present, and the convenient size and rotation speed it has for a spacecraft to land and collect samples.

Mapping the Unknown: Unveiling Bennu’s Secrets with Eagle Eyes

The spacecraft for this mission launched on September 8th, 2016- roughly 17 years after Bennu was first detected. After staying in the orbit of Earth for nearly a year, the spacecraft departed for Bennu on September 22nd, 2017. After arriving at its destination more than a year later, the spacecraft begins to map the entire surface of Bennu with its cameras in search of the best places to collect samples. The spacecraft has three cameras – PolyCam, MapCam and SamCam called OCAMS or the OSIRIS-REx Camera Suite. These cameras scan and store the entire topography of Bennu.

The mapping stage had two steps:

The Global Phase and Local Phase. The global phase involved scanning the asteroid all at once. This phase took 1.5 to 2 years to complete. It gave a broad picture of the asteroid.

Next, they took close-up images of the asteroid to find the perfect places to collect samples. They were searching for spots with lots of carbon and carbon dust. The cameras have lenses that would enable you to see an object as small as a coin on the surface of Bennu. Samples are not the only resource we get from mapping- this step is crucial to collect images of the asteroid as data for further studies by scientists of the next generations. Future generations may find valuable insights into the geography of our planets and asteroids.

Touchdown! A Delicate Dance and a Precious Bounty

After meticulous planning, the moment arrived. On October 20th, 2020, OSIRIS-REx carefully touched down on Bennu, collecting a 60-gram sample, roughly the size of a kiwi fruit. This “Resource Identification and Security-Regolith Explorer” stage secured the precious bounty for its journey back to Earth on May 10th.

The capsule entered Earth’s atmosphere and back on land on September 24th, 2023 in the Utah desert, USA. The spacecraft remains in the heliocentric orbit of Earth to prepare for its next mission to the asteroid Apophis for mission OSIRIS Apex in 2029.

Beyond Bennu

Along with having a carbon-rich surface, Bennu is also under study to search for elements such as gold and platinum. With this knowledge, scientists hope to utilise it as fuel for further space travel. Additionally, water, – essential for life and interstellar travel-is believed to reside in the interiors of Bennu. This mission brings us a step closer to collecting pristine samples from other planets and asteroids in the future, understanding the geographical and thermal properties of other celestial bodies, understanding our early solar system.

The OSIRIS-REx mission is a testament to human curiosity and our relentless pursuit of understanding our universe. By studying Bennu, we dive deep into the depths of our origins, gain insights, and encourage future space exploration.


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