Christmas Day for scientists who study asteroids is coming in just two months when a small spacecraft carrying supplies from a distant debris pile will land in the Utah desert.
The return of the OSIRIS-REx sample container on September 24 will carry out the major task of scooping up material from an asteroid—in this case, the carbonaceous Near-Earth asteroid Bennu—and returning its rocks and dust to Earth.
It’s been a long time coming. The project was launched seven years ago and has been in development for ten years. To say that the scientists who fought and accomplished this project are worried and excited is an understatement. But there’s also an added frisson with OSIRIS-REx, since scientists aren’t sure they can get away from the asteroid.
Bennu is basically a pile of debris, and to collect this material, the spacecraft used a special “touch and go” method. Just after the end of the robotic arm that touched Bennu, the spacecraft fired a burst of nitrogen gas, causing a cloud of material to leave Bennu’s surface. The model’s hand was held up for a few seconds to absorb this before returning.
What they’ve found is that scientists aren’t sure what they have or how much they’ve taken. Scientists are confident they will collect at least 60 grams of material from Bennu, or about the size of a Snickers candy bar. Most likely, they will collect several hundred grams, if not more. But they won’t know until the spacecraft lands and the capsule is opened.
“It adds stress to us, of course,” said Nicole Lunning, a planetary scientist at NASA’s Johnson Space Center in Houston.
The models will meet a flotilla of scientists and helicopters at the Utah Test and Training Range when they arrive on the morning of the 24th. There, the heat shield will be removed. The carrier will be flown to Houston’s Ellington Field the next day, where it will be placed in a clean room. Almost immediately, scientists will remove the asteroid dust from the sample container and begin preliminary analysis.
On Monday, Lunning visited the site where, in about 10 days, scientists and technicians at the Johnson Space Center will carefully open the container and begin placing the contents into a special, eight-layer pizza tray. The project will be overseen by Lunning, the OSIRIS-REx sample manager in Houston.
This will be done inside an ISO-5 clean room on the second floor of Building 31 in the center of the space, with white floors and walls. Here, the samples will be clearly identified, and the catalog will be made of small stones and dust.
OSIRIS-REx has a team of about 200 scientists dedicated to the mission, and they will have six months to analyze the first objects they have found on the surface of the asteroid. After this period, these samples will be available to foreign scientists for research.
The beginning of life
Scientists are very careful with samples of the asteroid Bennu because they don’t want to contaminate it with material from Earth. We hope that, by understanding the elements that make up Bennu, scientists will be able to get a picture of the elements that come from the Solar System, when such asteroids were formed. Scientists can tell how life began in the solar system.
For the past half century, starting with the first rocks brought back from the Moon by the Apollo mission, NASA has been storing its precious materials from the Solar System inside well-kept rooms and clean rooms in Houston. As part of its Astromaterials Research and Exploration Science program, the site contains meteorites from Mars, solar wind waves, comet particles, and 127,000 labeled samples of Moon rocks.
“Every sample here has a story,” said Eileen Stansbery, who directs the program. “It’s our job to preserve these samples for scientists to use for years to come.”