NASA capsule delivers rare sample from asteroid Bennu

Mount Holyoke College Visiting Professor of Astronomy and Director of the Williston Observatory Thomas Burbine was interviewed in The Wall Street Journal about the scientific impact of the sample.

On September 24, a National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) capsule landed within the Department of Defense’s Utah Test and Training Range carrying the largest sample ever collected from an asteroid, about 250 grams – around half a pound. The sample, retrieved by the Osris-REx robot spacecraft, was transported to a laboratory at NASA’s Johnson Space Center in Houston where the sample will be studied and unveiled publicly in October 2023. NASA plans for the material to be available to scientists worldwide within six months.

The sample was collected from a space rock named Bennu which was chosen as the target for this seven-year long mission because it was carbon-rich, meaning it could contain biochemical building blocks needed for life, and has an orbit bringing it close to Earth, making it more accessible than other asteroids.

Thomas Burbine, visiting lecturer of astronomy and director of the Williston Observatory at Mount Holyoke College, commented on the results of this four billion mile journey. “It is a big deal — this is the first time they’ve gotten a substantial amount of material,” he said. “This will change the way we think about asteroids.”

This sample could help us better understand the earliest days of our solar system, 4.5 billion years ago, and potentially how asteroids develop with the ingredients for life on Earth as we know it. Insights from the mission could also help inform future generations’ response to the potential threat of Bennu impacting Earth.

“Sooner or later, one of these objects is going to hit the Earth,” Burbine said. “So you want to know as much about them as you can if you want to do any mitigation.” He explained, “It’s what we call the most potentially hazardous asteroid in the solar system. But we definitely don’t want people to panic over this.” 

Read the article here.

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