LAUNCH CONTROL: 3, 2, 1, and liftoff of Osiris-Rex. Its seven-year mission, to boldly go to the asteroid Bennu and back.
The seven years are up. Osiris-Rex flew to the asteroid Bennu, kept pace with it for two and a half years, and kicked up some dust and pebbles from its surface. It grabbed some of that debris. And tomorrow, it’s scheduled to drop a canister filled with those samples into Earth’s atmosphere, where it will parachute to a soft landing in Utah.
Bennu is both a scientific treasure and an existential threat.
The asteroid is about a third of a mile in diameter. It contains a lot of organic compounds — the chemical building blocks of life. Asteroids like Bennu could have pounded the young Earth, providing some of the key ingredients for life on our planet. So the samples could tell us more about the development of life on Earth.
On the other hand, Bennu’s orbit comes close to Earth’s orbit. That means Bennu could someday slam into our planet, causing massive destruction. Some close encounters with Earth in the 22nd century could put Bennu on a collision course. Learning about the asteroid could help future generations deflect it from such a path.
Osiris-Rex probably collected at least a pound of material from Bennu, and possibly four pounds or more. The sample container will be taken to Johnson Space Center in Houston, where its treasures will be parsed out to scientists around the world.
Script by Damond Benningfield