On Sunday, a seven-year NASA expedition will come to a close, and if all goes according to plan, the first asteroid sample ever recovered in space will touch down on Earth.
The government space agency launched the OSIRIS-REx spacecraft in September 2016 on a risky mission to capture a collection of boulders from the asteroid Bennu, which is situated roughly 200 million miles distant.
The spaceship will release its cargo over the Utahn Dugway Proving Grounds as it returns to Earth’s orbit. If it is successful, a capsule holding roughly nine ounces of rock and soil thought to be 4.5 billion years old would be released.
At 6:41 a.m. ET, OSIRIS-REx will be visible over Salt Lake City; a minute later, it will release its capsule 63,000 miles above Earth.
After 20 minutes of tandem flight, the spacecraft will fire their engines and depart for their next mission, which will take them to the asteroid Adophis in 2029.
The delivery will be broadcast live by NASA starting at 10 a.m. ET, and the capsule will touch down in the atmosphere at 10:42 a.m. ET. At 102,000 feet, the canister cover will be launched, and the drogue parachutes will then open to stabilize the capsule.
Last but not least, the capsule is scheduled to land in the Utah desert at 10:55 AM ET.
If OSIRIS-REx misses this window, it will attempt again in 2025 when it will next orbit the planet.
It could alter our understanding of the history of the solar system, according to Nicole Lunning, the lead OSIRIS-REx sample curator, who is in charge of looking after the sample after it lands.
“This sample is crucial because it will provide us a fresh perspective on how our solar system developed, the components of life that may have contributed to the planets in our solar system, and whether or not there is life there as well.
The samples will be kept in a specially constructed hyper clean room in Building 31 at the Johnson Space Center in Houston, Texas, where all the Apollo moon rocks were also treated, to be wary of organic pollutants.
Any scientist from the larger community who asks a sample will be able to get one as soon as feasible, according to Lunning.
“There are hundreds of scientists around the world who are super excited to be able to study these samples to answer new scientific questions that we haven’t been able to answer with the samples that we have on Earth right now,” the speaker stated.
This is not the first sample return mission that NASA has attempted. The NASA Genesis spacecraft crashed in Utah in 2004 as it was returning to Earth after gathering solar wind ionized particles. Though the majority of the samples were harmed, some might be successfully recovered.
Two years later, Stardust, another sample return mission, successfully landed after gathering interstellar dust and samples from Comet Wild 2.