A handful of rocks and dust might soon help us answer fundamental questions of how our solar system began. After seven years of space exploration, NASA’s OSIRIS-REx mission will return to Earth on Sunday, Sept. 24, bringing back a small sample of asteroid remnants that will help scientists better understand life formations on Earth.
Traveling millions of miles, the OSIRIS-REx spacecraft landed on the asteroid Bennu in 2020. Bennu was chosen because of its relative closeness to Earth’s orbit and because of its age, which NASA estimates is 4.5 billion years old.
Using a robotic arm, the spacecraft collected regolith – or rocks and dust – from the asteroid and put it in a return capsule, now bound for Earth, according to a NASA press release.
The asteroid samples have the potential to reveal the early makeup of our solar system, said Raj Venkatapathy, an entry systems expert at NASA Ames Research Center. “It’s like a time capsule to the past, pure and unaltered,” he said.
Once the capsule touches down, scientists from around the world will study its contents, mining information about the minerals with specific attention on organic compounds that could provide clues about life formation on Earth. Scientists have theorized that asteroids like Bennu might have collided with Earth in the past, delivering the basic building blocks of life as we know it today, the press release said.
But landing the 110-pound capsule, without damaging its contents, is not an easy task. The OSIRIS-REx spacecraft will release the capsule 63,000 miles above Earth’s surface. Traveling at a speed of 27,000 mph, it will enter Earth’s atmosphere, heating up to 5,000 degrees Fahrenheit, according to the press release.
“It will be coming at a high speed with nothing other than air to slow it down. Our job is to protect the inside, project the heat and not break the capsule apart,” Venkatapathy said, explaining that his team helped develop the capsule’s thermal protection system.
Since the 1960s, the Ames Research Center has been a pioneer in entry systems, protecting spacecraft and their payloads from extreme heat. In the 1980s, it developed a particularly novel technology, PICA – or Phenolic Impregnated Carbon Ablator – that was refined and used for the OSIRIS-REx capsule. PICA likely will be used for another forty years, Venkatapathy said, contributing to more scientific explorations in space.
“It’s exciting to be part of a mission that asks questions of who we are and where we come from. Even if it’s in a small way, we’re contributing to this journey,” he said.
The capsule will land at the Department of Defense’s Utah Test and Training Range Utah on Sunday, Sept. 24. NASA will broadcast and live stream the landing on YouTube at youtube.com/NASA. Touchdown is expected at 7:55 a.m. PST.