NASA’s spacecraft to drop asteroid sample capsule tomorrow. What to expect?

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The National Aeronautics and Space Administration’s spacecraft, transporting a sample from a near-Earth asteroid, is scheduled for a flyby past Earth this Sunday. During this flyby, it will release a capsule containing the sample for to the ground.

A training model of the OSIRIS-REx sample return capsule is seen during a drop test.(NASA/Keegan Barber)

NASA’s OSIRIS-REx (Origins, Spectral Interpretation, Resource Identification and Security–Regolith Explorer) spacecraft briefly touched the Bennu asteroid’s surface and collected a sample of rock and dust from the asteroid in 2020. It will speed past Earth tomorrow and jettison its sample capsule containing material from the asteroid, the US space agency said in a statement. The United States’ first-ever asteroid sample return mission is planned to land in the Utah desert and then, after several checks, it will be stored in labs for scientific study.

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What to expect from the Bennu asteroid sample?

• Asteroids are believed to be celestial leftovers from the early days of our Solar System, dating back around 4.5 billion years. Thus, a sample directly brought from an asteroid can provide valuable insights into the origin and evolution of our Solar System.

Asteroids, in a sense, act as time capsules, preserving the ancient history of our solar system and potentially containing clues about the precursor materials of life, says NASA.

It can help scientists understand the arrival of essential elements like water and organic molecules, which are the building blocks of life on our planet.

• Asteroid Bennu is a potentially hazardous that has a nearly 1 in 1,800 chance of colliding with Earth in the next 300 years. Thus studying its composition may help prepare effective defence against it.

• Moreover, when a rock enters Earth’s atmosphere as a meteorite, it can lose critical details during the fiery descent and impact. However, a sample directly returned from space retains these delicate features. Such samples can reveal when the rock formed, how much exposure it had to space radiation and solar wind, and even microscopic materials that can provide insights into space weathering and shock events, Eos science news magazine reports.

• Directly returned samples can address scientific questions that remote observations cannot fully answer. For instance, the geological context of meteorites is often unknown, making it challenging to understand their origins, abundance, and potential impact on early Earth. However, with the Bennu sample, scientists have a clear understanding of its source and geological context.

• Bennu, a carbon-rich asteroid, is particularly enchanting because of its carbon chemistry, which holds clues to organic molecules relevant to biology.

• Additionally, Bennu’s sample may also contain other meteorite types that fell onto it, helping distinguish between asteroid-origin materials and terrestrial contaminants or alterations, the report adds.

The samples will be stored in a special curation lab built at NASA’s Johnson Space Center in Houston to preserve it in pristine condition. Subsequently, it will be distributed to scientists worldwide with a large fraction kept for future generations to study.

NASA’s live coverage of the OSIRIS-REx sample capsule landing starts at 10 a.m. EDT (7:30pm Indian time) on the agency’s official social media platforms.

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