In 2016, the OSIRIS-REx space probe was launched. In 2018 he arrived at his destination, the asteroid Bennu. That’s a potato-shaped space rock that orbits the sun.
Although the name space rock suggests otherwise, Bennu is not a massive entity, says Daphne Stam. “It’s a bunch of grit held together by a little gravity, a kind of cloud of rocks together.”
333 million kilometers away
Bennu was first measured and photographed from all angles by the space probe. That data was then sent to Earth to study.
In October 2020, the OSIRIS-REx sucked up approximately 250 grams of stones and dust. That happened almost 333 million kilometers away from Earth. The asteroid samples were collected in a container on board the probe.
The OSIRIS-REx probe remains in space and released a capsule with the collected container of debris about 100,000 kilometers from Earth. That capsule flew into the atmosphere four hours later at almost 45,000 kilometers per hour.
The landing of the capsule this afternoon, in the desert of the American state of Utah, was broadcast live on the website of the American space agency NASA and can be watched here:
Bennu consists of primordial material from when our solar system was formed. The debris that has now been brought to Earth can therefore teach us more about the origins of that solar system 4.5 billion years ago. Stam explains: “What is very interesting to look for are the building blocks of life.”
Origin of life
We are all made of molecules that contain a lot of carbon, the planetary scientist explains. “These are called organic molecules. It is very interesting to see whether the same building blocks are also in that asteroid. Because we do not know where life on Earth comes from.”
Could be dangerous for us
Bennu can therefore provide answers to questions about the origins of life. But at the same time he also threatens that life a little bit. There is a – albeit very small – chance that it will collide with Earth in the year 2135. “It’s about a 1 in 2,000 chance. But it’s very close. So it’s a potentially dangerous asteroid.”
It is not very big, its diameter is 500 meters, Stam describes. “But if it crashes on a city here on earth, that city will be gone.” All the more reason to study Bennu carefully.
It is the first time for the Americans to retrieve material from an asteroid. Japan preceded them with the Hayabusa and Hayabusa2 missions, but they brought back smaller payloads.
According to Daphne Stam, scientists were unable to measure how many grams of grit had been collected. It is already clear that more material has been brought along than ever before.
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