Over the weekend the story of the OSIRIS-REx project caught my eye. OSIRIS-REx is an acronym for "Origins, Spectral Interpretation, Resource Identification, Security-Regolith Explorer." In layman's terms, it is an unmanned spacecraft that left Earth in 2016, entered the orbit of asteroid Bennu in 2018, collected a sample from its surface in 2020. In May of 2021, it left Bennu's orbit and began the return trip to Earth, swinging by to drop the sample off this weekend while continuing on its journey. Total number of miles on the odometer? 3.86 BILLION.

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Honey, Where Did I Leave the Raygun?

While people are complaining that we don't quite look like Back to the Future II, here's a monumental and historic feat of technology: a space craft that was able to scrape around 8 ounces of rocks and dirt from an asteroid, and drop it to a specific spot in Utah like your local delivering pizzas on a Saturday night. My inner sci-fi geek thinks the whole thing is super cool.

Being into sci-fi and horror also has its detriments. I've seen too many movies. Of course my mind turned right to an infinite amount of scenarios ranging from The Fly to the Tommyknockers, to any amount of zombie type events, and even to Gene Roddenberry's underappreciated Earth: Final Conflict. The jury is still out, but cataclysm happening when the sample is opened seems unlikely.

Armageddon Re-Watch Time?

The mission isn't all about the fun of a space craft artfully returning a sample home. The rocks and soil could give insight into the origins of the universe. There's a possibility that Bennu could collide with Earth in the future. Dr. Valerie Rapson, Assistant Professor of Astronomy and Physics at SUNY Oneonta had this to add:

Asteroids are the leftover building blocks of our solar system. They remain mostly unchanged from when they formed over 4 billion years ago, so by studying them we can learn more about how Earth and the other planets came to be. They may also contain crucial elements for life, like water or complex carbon compounds. If astronomers find any of these molecules in the Bennu sample, then we can learn more about how life came to be on Earth.

 

Into the Unknown

Though there have been samples collected from other asteroids, there is so much that is not known to scientists. OSIRIS-REx's mission aims to add to the knowledge base. Dr. Rapson continued:

Astronomers already know that Bennu is a Carbonaceous asteroid, so it’s expected to be rich in carbon and may contain organic compounds. But exactly what the asteroid’s surface is made of is still unknown. The sample should also provide us with more information about the asteroid’s composition, density, and whether or not water is present at or below the surface.

 

We can also compare these results to samples of asteroids Itokawa and Ryugu, which have already returned to Earth. These asteroids are of a different type then Bennu, so we will have a much more comprehensive understanding of the different types of asteroids that exist within our solar system.

Now What?

On October 11th, researchers will hold a live broadcast from Johnson Space Center in Houston to discuss preliminary findings. While the time between now and then is not enough for a full analysis, there is an expectation of some interesting reveals. We'll all be waiting to see what's been discovered.

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