AUSTIN (KXAN) – NASA brought rock samples back from space over the weekend for the first time since the Apollo Mission. The OSIRIS-REx mission launched in 2016 towards Bennu, a more than four billion year old asteroid orbiting our sun.
“It took us about two years to actually catch up to it in the right place and be able to get into orbit,” said NASA Senior Scientist Amy Simon.
Once in orbit, OSIRIS-REx scanned the surface of the asteroid before eventually touching down and collecting a sample in 2020. It then spent three years bringing the sample back to Earth.
“Now that the sample has come back, the spacecraft is still healthy, it will actually be diverting on to a new mission, it will be going to near Earth asteroid Apophis.”
Apophis was once considered a risk to Earth. Discovered in 2004, scientists believed it would hit the Earth in 2029.
Will an asteroid hit Earth in 2029?
Luckily, a decade later with more precise measurements, Scientists were able to determine it wouldn’t hit Earth, but just pass very close to it.
OSIRIS-REx, which will be renamed OSIRIS-APEX for the new leg of the mission, will orbit Earth until 2029, when it will then catch up to Apophis and continue its work.
According to Simon, they will perform a similar mission on Apophis that they did on Bennu.
“We’re going to map out the surface, we’re going to look for variations, we’re going to look for evidence that it was actually tidally disrupted by passing so close to the Earth.”
When OSIRIS-APEX starts to run out of fuel, it will descend to the surface of Apophis, where it will fire its thrusters and blow around the dirt on the asteroid’s surface.
“Part of that is to see how easily we can move the material to see how soft the surfaces like it was on menu. But also by moving the surface dust out of the way. You might see different minerals underneath,” Simon said.
Studying the surface of an asteroid
Simon operated the Osiris Visible and Infrared Spectrometer aboard OSIRIS-REx. “It takes the light and it spreads it out into its components just like a prism or a rain rate raindrop does to make a rainbow.”
Simon said that by studying light reflecting off of the asteroid, they were able to determine its make up.
On Bennu, they found hydrated minerals which show that water was once on the asteroid. They also found carbon minerals, frequently called the building blocks of life.
The samples recovered from Bennu, about 200 grams of rocks, will be brought to Johnson Space Flight Center. They’ll be held there before being opened and redistributed to scientists around the world.
“About 25% will be distributed to scientists around the world. The other 75% is archived. So just like the Apollo moon rocks, we’ll be able to do experiments in the future things we haven’t even thought of yet,” Simon said.