A NASA space capsule carrying a sample of rocky material taken from an asteroid three years ago will return to Earth this weekend, undergoing a violent dive through the atmosphere until it lands by parachute in the Utah desert on Sunday (23).
NASA officials said in a press release on Friday that the weather forecast is favorable for the OSIRIS-Rex robotic spacecraft to return to launch the capsule for the final landing as planned, with no further modifications to the flight plan required.(22)
Sandra Freund, a program manager at Lockheed Martin, which designed and assembled the spacecraft, said mission leaders are hoping for an “accurate” landing in the US military zone in Utah, west of Salt Lake City.
The round, teardrop-shaped capsule is expected to parachute at 11:55 a.m. Brasilia time, about 13 minutes after it reached the top of the atmosphere at 35 times the speed of sound, ending a seven-year journey.
If successful, the OSIRIS-REx mission, a joint effort between NASA and scientists from the University of Arizona, will bring to Earth the third sample of the asteroid, and the largest to date. Two similar JAXA missions have returned pieces of rock over the past 13 years.
OSIRIS-REx collected rocks from Bennu, a carbon-rich asteroid discovered in 1999 that is classified as a “near-Earth object” because it passes relatively close to our planet every six years. Scientists estimated that the chances of it colliding with Earth are 1 in 2,700 by the end of the twenty-second century.
Bennu is small compared to other asteroids, with a diameter of only 500 meters, which is slightly larger than the height of the Empire State Building, but it is small compared to the catastrophic Chicxulub asteroid, which struck the Earth about 66 million years ago, and wiped out the dinosaurs.
Like other asteroids, Bennu is a remnant of the early solar system, whose current chemistry and mineralogy have remained largely unchanged since its formation about 4.5 billion years ago. Thus, it holds important clues about the origin and evolution of rocky planets like Earth, and may contain organic molecules essential for life.
“We are literally looking at geological material that formed before the Earth existed,” said Dante Lauretta, mission investigator at the University of Arizona.
OSIRIS-Rex was launched in September 2016 and arrived at Bennu in 2018. It spent nearly two years orbiting the asteroid before getting close enough to plant its robotic arm on the rocky surface on October 20, 2020.
The spacecraft began its nearly 2 billion kilometer journey to Earth in May 2021.
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