NASAA NASA team practices picking up the capsule with asteroid debris
NOS Nieuws•vandaag, 12:58
With helicopters and transport equipment, a NASA team is in the starting blocks for a special feat of tracking in the desert of the American state of Utah. A small capsule should land there this afternoon around 5 p.m. (Dutch time) with a precious cargo on board: dust from the asteroid Bennu.
That capsule looks a lot like a flying saucer for some little aliens. The cone-shaped device, attached to the Osiris Rex space probe, has been on its way since 2020 to bring some dust from Bennu to Earth.
The probe picked up this dust by blowing nitrogen gas against the asteroid with an extendable arm and catching the swirling debris. The place on Bennu where this happened was selected in advance by NASA, with the help of Queen guitarist and PhD astronomer Brian May, among others.
Once secured in containers, the composition of the grit can be examined. Planetary scientists are mainly interested in what kind of organic molecules are in them. They hope to learn from this what reactions have taken place in space to form these types of molecules.
The probe captured dust swirling from the asteroid:
NASA mission to asteroid Bennu: ‘An early Christmas present if it arrives’
When approaching Earth, Osiris Rex drops the capsule a few hours in advance and flies on to visit another asteroid. The capsule enters the Earth’s atmosphere and must land with a parachute in the Utah desert, at the Test and Training Range of the Ministry of Defense.
After landing, NASA specialists, who have practiced this operation a few times, come into action. They will pick up the container by helicopter and take it to a laboratory in Houston. That operation can be followed via a NASA stream.
It’s a repeat exercise for NASA. An almost identical capsule returned in 2006 with other cosmic debris, then from a comet. Yet it is exciting again, says planetary researcher Inge Loes ten Kate in Nieuws & Co on NPO Radio 1, especially when the capsule is opened.
After landing, the capsule is taken to a lab at NASA’s Johnson Spaceflight Center in Houston. “They have clean rooms there where people are equipped in white suits to ensure that they cannot contaminate the sample themselves. Then it is all unpacked piece by piece and distributed among all kinds of new containers and to all kinds of different labs. sent.”
NASA NASA’s ‘cleanroom team’ practices with a model of the capsule
All precautions are primarily intended to ensure that nothing terrestrial can get to the asteroid debris. The chance that something extraterrestrial contaminates our environment is negligible, but cannot be completely ruled out, says Ten Kate. “You have to take it into account. Some people are a bit giggly about it, but yes, if it goes wrong, then it is very wrong.”
Eyewitness to the creation of the earth
Asteroid Bennu is essentially a clumped lump of debris, explains Osiris-Rex project scientist Jason Dworking. A remnant from the time when the solar system was formed, containing rocks, minerals but also organic compounds that are older than the Earth. “These types of asteroids are essentially eyewitnesses. They tell us something about the conditions at that time and give us more insight into the origins of life and the planets.”
We do have some idea of how our solar system was formed, says Ten Kate, but there are still all kinds of holes in the models we have. “We can match them with observations of other solar systems in the making and we also have many meteorites from which we can get information. But the advantage of this asteroid debris is that you know where it comes from.”
Because the probe orbited the asteroid, researchers were able to make many measurements. “As a result, we already know something about its history and composition. And with that context, we have another piece of the puzzle about how the solar system, including the Earth, came into being.”