Washington, September 24 (EFE).- In a historic achievement, NASA successfully brought a sample of an asteroid back to Earth on Sunday for the first time in its history. Scientists anticipate that this sample, collected from the asteroid Bennu, will offer unique insights into the origins of life and the solar system’s formation roughly 4.5 billion years ago.
Amid great anticipation, NASA’s capsule containing samples from the asteroid Bennu landed at 08:52 local time (14:52 GMT) in the Utah desert, marking the culmination of a seven-year journey.
This marks NASA’s inaugural mission to return asteroid samples to Earth, distinguishing it from the Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency (JAXA), which successfully retrieved asteroid remnants in 2020 but only in minute quantities, not exceeding the volume of a teaspoon of dust and rocks.
The NASA mission, named “Osiris-Rex,” aims to have collected 250 grams of asteroid Bennu’s remnants. However, scientists will confirm this once they open the capsule in two days.
A “Time Capsule”
According to Argentine scientist Lucas Paganini of NASA, Bennu contains molecules dating back to the solar system’s formation 4.5 billion years ago. This discovery could shed light on questions that have intrigued humanity for centuries, such as the origin of life and the solar system itself.
“Asteroids are crucial because they are remnants from the formation of planets 4.5 billion years ago. They are like time capsules, equivalent to dinosaur fossils, allowing us to understand what happened millions of years ago. In this case, with our mission, we are traveling billions of years back in time,” explained Paganini.
Scientists believe these molecules might have reached our planet aboard meteorites. Analyzing Bennu’s composition is essential to verify this hypothesis and clarify the potential role of celestial bodies in the origin of life.
Bennu was chosen precisely because it is relatively rich in organic molecules and has a known orbit, making it easier for the Osiris-Rex spacecraft to approach and collect samples.
Discovered in 1999, Bennu is believed to have formed from fragments of a much more giant asteroid after a collision. It measures half a kilometer wide, roughly the height of the Empire State Building, and its rough, dark surface is covered in large rocks.
Additionally, there is a hypothesis that Bennu could collide with Earth in 159 years, although this possibility is only 0.057 percent. Nevertheless, NASA’s mission would also serve to study how to alter the asteroid’s trajectory if necessary, as explained to EFE by Paganini.
NASA broadcasted the capsule’s landing in the Utah desert live, and it was an exhilarating moment when the parachute, measuring approximately 81 by 50 centimeters, deployed. This step was crucial to reduce the capsule’s speed and prevent the remnants of asteroid Bennu from crashing into the Utah desert.
“Welcome home!” exclaimed Noelia González, a member of NASA’s communication team responsible for the Spanish-language broadcast at that moment.
“The atmosphere is filled with anticipation, excitement, and nerves,” González shared. At the same time, in the background, cheers of joy from NASA’s team could be heard following the mission’s success.
The capsule entered Earth’s atmosphere around 8:42 local time in Utah (14:42 GMT), traveling at a speed of 44,500 kilometers per hour and facing high temperatures, making it essential to slow down during descent.
Four hours before landing, the Osiris-Rex spacecraft released the capsule into space at a precise distance of 102,000 kilometers from our planet, setting a course for another asteroid named Apofis, which it will study in the coming years.
With the capsule’s arrival on Earth, it concludes an adventure that began in 2016 with the launch of the “Osiris-Rex” spacecraft from NASA’s Kennedy Space Center in Florida.
Unparalleled Purity of the Sample Now, NASA scientists will transport the capsule to a hermetically sealed room, free from any other molecules, at a nearby military base, ensuring the sample remains uncontaminated.
The sample’s value lies in its lack of contamination by other substances, potentially providing previously unknown information. Often, meteorites contain valuable data for scientists, but by the time they reach Earth, this data has already been altered.
To study this invaluable sample in ideal conditions, the capsule will be flown to NASA’s Johnson Space Center in Texas on Monday, where it will be preserved in a specially designated room.
However, not all of Bennu’s dust and rocks will be immediately used for research. Approximately 70% of the remnants will be preserved, offering future generations of scientists the opportunity to address the profound questions of the universe’s origin with technology that we can’t even imagine today. EFE