After hitting an asteroid 3 years ago, NASA will finally see the Ars Technica results

A look inside the cleanroom where the OSIRIS-REx samples will be stored.
Zoom in / A look inside the cleanroom where the OSIRIS-REx samples will be stored.

NASA

Christmas Day for scientists studying asteroids will come in just two months when a small spacecraft carrying material from a distant pile of rubble lands in a Utah desert.

The return of the OSIRIS-REx sample canister on Sept. 24 will close out the primary mission to capture material from an asteroid, in this case the near-Earth carbonaceous asteroid Bennu, and return some of its pebbles and dust to Earth.

Has been a long time. This mission was launched seven years ago and has been in planning and development for over a decade. To say the scientists who fought and executed this mission are eager and enthusiastic is an understatement. But there’s an added thrill with OSIRIS-REx, as scientists aren’t entirely sure what they’ve been able to extract from the asteroid.

Touch and run

Bennu is essentially a pile of rubble and to collect this material, the spacecraft used a unique “tap and go” maneuver. Immediately after the end of a robotic arm lands on Bennu, the spacecraft fires a canister of pure nitrogen, causing a cloud of material to rise from Bennu’s surface. The sampling arm remained on the surface for seconds to suck up this material before backing away.

The problem is, scientists aren’t entirely sure what they have or how much of it they’ve recovered. Scientists are confident they have collected at least 60 grams of material from Bennu, or about the mass of a Snickers candy bar. More likely, they collected at least a few hundred grams, if not more. But they won’t know until the dropship lands and the capsule is opened.

“It definitely heightens the tension for us,” said Nicole Lunning, a planetary scientist at NASA’s Johnson Space Center in Houston.

The samples will be met by a flotilla of scientists and helicopters at the Utah Test and Training Range when it lands on the morning of the 24th. There, the dusty heat shield will be removed. The sample carrier will then be flown to Ellington Field in Houston the next day, where it will be placed in a clean room. Almost immediately, scientists will clear the asteroid dust from the outside of the sample container and begin a preliminary analysis.

Clean rooms

On Monday, Lunning led a tour of the facility where, over the course of about 10 days, Johnson Space Center scientists and technicians will painstakingly open the sample container and begin placing its contents into a special pizza-sized tray with eight compartments. This work will be overseen by Lunning, the principal OSIRIS-REx sample curator in Houston.

It will be done inside a well-lit ISO-5 cleanroom on the second floor of Building 31 at the space center, with epoxy floors and white walls. Here the samples will be thoroughly characterized and a catalog of all the small rocks and dust particles will be made.

OSIRIS-REx has a team of about 200 scientists dedicated to the mission and they will have six months to conduct their initial analyzes of the material collected from the asteroid’s surface. After this time, the samples will be available to external scientists for further research.

Origin of life

Scientists are paying close attention to samples from asteroid Bennu because they don’t want to contaminate them with organic material from Earth. It is hoped that by understanding the material that makes up Bennu, scientists will be able to get a snapshot of the conditions that date back to the origin of the Solar System, when such asteroids formed. By characterizing the organic material and the minerals that surround it, scientists may be able to unravel some details about how life originated 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 carefully maintained vaults and clean rooms at the Houston facility. As part of its Astromaterials Research and Exploration Science program, this facility houses meteorites that originated on Mars, fragments from the solar wind, particles from comets, and 127,000 cataloged samples of moon rocks.

“Every champion here has a story to tell,” said Eileen Stansbery, who leads the program. “It’s our job to preserve these samples for scientists to use for decades to come.”

#hitting #asteroid #years #NASA #finally #Ars #Technica #results
Image Source : arstechnica.com

Leave a Comment