On Sunday morning, determination supra the Utah desert, a parachute volition unfastened and a capsule containing astir 250g of rubble volition interval to the ground. As it descends, 4 helicopters bearing scientists, engineers and subject information unit volition contention crossed the arid scenery to retrieve the precious cargo.
Because this is not conscionable immoderate aged dirt: these are 4.6bn-year-old chunks of abstraction stone that could not lone shed airy connected however planets formed but however beingness itself began.
“These are immoderate of the oldest materials formed successful our star system,” says Ashley King of the Natural History Museum (NHM) successful London. “Samples from asteroids [such arsenic this] archer america what each those ingredients were for making a satellite similar the Earth and they besides archer america what the look was – truthful however did those materials travel unneurotic and commencement mixing unneurotic to extremity up with [habitable environments]?”
The last enactment of Nasa’s Osiris-Rex ngo mightiness look similar the opening series of an enactment movie, but it is the culmination of a seven-year travel successful which a robotic spacecraft the size of a transit van was sent to survey – and past plunder – the heap of rubble that comprises the asteroid Bennu.
The capsule containing this quarry is expected to beryllium released from the spacecraft astatine 0642 EDT (1142 BST) connected Sunday and participate Earth’s ambiance 4 hours later, travelling astatine 27,650 miles per hour. As it plummets towards Earth its way volition beryllium tracked, with parachutes deployed to dilatory its descent to astir 11mph astatine touchdown.
Once the squad retrieve the capsule it volition beryllium loaded into a metallic crate, wrapped and transported by chopper to a impermanent facility. On Monday it volition beryllium whisked to Nasa’s Johnson Space Center successful Houston.
While scientists accidental determination is small information of the samples posing a hazard to Earth, they accent avoiding contamination successful the different absorption is paramount. Filtered aerial volition beryllium allowed to travel into the capsule arsenic it plummets to Earth to debar leaks that could origin contamination, portion the capsule volition subsequently beryllium hooked up to a travel of nitrogen.
One purpose of the ngo is to amended recognize however to foretell and support Earth against imaginable asteroid strikes, an endeavour King said would beryllium aided by analysing the carnal properties of the samples, specified arsenic their density and porosity.
Indeed Bennu is classed arsenic a “potentially hazardous” asteroid, with Nasa suggesting that aft the mid-2100s, and until astatine slightest 2300, it has a 1 successful 1,750 accidental of crashing into Earth.
Another important country of probe is the asteroid’s carbon-rich surface, which scientists are keen to survey to research whether specified objects could person brought ingredients important to beingness – specified arsenic integrated substances and h2o – to Earth.
King is portion of a tiny squad that volition transportation retired the archetypal investigations of the asteroid worldly successful Houston connected Wednesday.
“We person 3 days to effort and precise rapidly characterise what minerals are successful determination [and] astir what is its composition,” helium says, adding that successful peculiar the researchers are keen to spot if water-containing minerals are present, arsenic suggested by observations from the spacecraft.
Parts of the samples volition subsequently beryllium studied by myriad scientists moving connected the mission, with fragments besides expected to beryllium sent to Nasa’s partners from the Canadian and Japanese abstraction agencies. The remainder volition beryllium preserved for probe by others, including aboriginal scientists.
Prof Sara Russell, besides of the NHM and the lawman pb for mineralogy and petrology connected the mission, volition beryllium studying the samples utilizing techniques including scanning electron microscopy.
She says: “I’ll beryllium looking for tiny grains successful determination that formed close astatine the opening of the star system. Before the planets formed, these grains were free-floating bits of dust, and tin archer america what the situation was similar then, and however agelong planet-building took.
“I’ll besides beryllium looking astatine however the minerals person changed implicit the past of the asteroid. That volition archer america astir however overmuch h2o it contained arsenic good arsenic what temperatures it’s experienced.”
While abstraction missions by Japan person antecedently recovered tiny samples of antithetic asteroids, the Osiris-Rex capsule volition incorporate the largest asteroid illustration ever collected.
Such missions, says King, are important arsenic they springiness scientists entree to pristine worldly of a known provenance and discourse – dissimilar meteorites, which are often of chartless root and contaminated by travelling done Earth’s ambiance and landing connected the ground.
Prof Neil Bowles of the University of Oxford, who volition beryllium heating up fragments of Bennu to research the infrared radiation they emit, says 1 of the benefits of retrieving the samples is that scientists tin comparison the results of laboratory tests with distant observations made by the Osiris-Rex spacecraft.
That, helium says, tin assistance researchers calibrate the latter, allowing them to much accurately research differences successful creation crossed the aboveground of Bennu.
But Kerri Donaldson Hanna, a planetary geologist astatine the University of Central Florida who has been moving with the Oxford team, says specified “ground-truthing” could besides assistance scientists construe observations of different asteroids successful the star strategy that tin lone beryllium studied by scope oregon spacecraft. “That’s truly the icing connected the cake,” she says.