Seven-year NASA mission may find clues to origins of Earth life when asteroid samples return to Utah
Planet Earth is about to receive the biggest sample yet from an asteroid. A NASA spacecraft will fly on Sunday and drop off pebbles and dust collected from the asteroid Bennu. The capsule holding the sample will parachute into the Utah desert. (Sept. 22)
A space rock is making big news this weekend. And it could make even bigger news next century.
Potentially hazardous near-Earth asteroid Bennu, the subject of NASA’s OSIRIS-REx mission that’s set to return to to Earth Sunday morning, could strike our planet a little more than 150 years from now, NASA scientists predicted in a recent study.
Fortunately, it’s a small chance.
What’s the OSIRUS-REx mission? What’s happening Sunday?
OSIRUS-REx − an unmanned, solar-powered spacecraft about the size of a household toolshed − traveled 4.4 billion miles over the past seven years to bring back samples from Bennu.
On September 8, 2016, NASA launched the spacecraft into space to collect samples from the asteroid to tell us more about its composition as well as the creation of the solar system.
The OSIRIS-REx − an acronym for Origins, Spectral Interpretation, Resource Identification, Security-Regolith Explorer − is the United States’ first attempt to retrieve and analyze samples from an asteroid.
The $800 million mission is expected to conclude when an estimated half-pound of rocks from the asteroid will drop by parachute into the Utah Test and Training Range, 80 miles west of Salt Lake City, Sunday morning.
NASA will livestream the landing and the samples collected will be sent to a laboratory in Houston for examination.
How Bennu could hit the Earth
Bennu, categorized as a Near-Earth Object (NEO), could pass through a “gravitational keyhole” in the year 2182, causing it to collide with Earth, said NASA. However, there is a 1 in 2,700, or 0.037%, chance of Bennu actually striking our planet that year.
The asteroid passes by Earth every six years and has had three close encounters with Earth in 1999, 2005, and 2011, experts said in a new paper. Bennu is also expected to pass closer to Earth than the moon in 2135 and if it does, our planet’s gravitational pull could put it on the path to striking Earth on September 24, 2182.
Watch: NASA’s OSIRIS-REx returns to Earth from the asteroid Bennu
What is Bennu?
First discovered in 1999, Bennu is believed to be part of a larger asteroid that collided with another space rock. It’s about one-third of a mile wide and is roughly the height of the Empire State Building, according to NASA.
Its black surface is packed with boulders, and it orbits the sun every 14 months.
Bennu is rich in carbon and is believed to be a leftover fragment from the formation of the solar system, a time capsule of sorts that may help illuminate the origin of life.
The asteroid was named after an Egyptian deity in 2013 by a nine-year-old boy from North Carolina. Bennu is the ancient Egyptian deity linked with the Sun, creation and rebirth.
Watch: How NASA’s OSIRIS-REx spacecraft will bring Bennu asteroid sample back to Earth
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Contributing: George Petras, Ramon Padilla, Janet Loehrke, USA TODAY
Saman Shafiq is a trending news reporter for USA TODAY. Reach her at [email protected] and follow her on X, the platform formerly known as Twitter @saman_shafiq7.
Daisy Hips is a science communicator who brings the wonders of the natural world to readers. Her articles explore breakthroughs in various scientific disciplines, from space exploration to environmental conservation. Daisy is also an advocate for science education and enjoys stargazing in her spare time.