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NASA scientists plan to bake, slice, and fire lasers at the asteroid sample from OSIRIS-REx to understand the creation of our solar system

Maiya Focht   

NASA scientists plan to bake, slice, and fire lasers at the asteroid sample from OSIRIS-REx to understand the creation of our solar system
  • NASA's OSIRIS-REx spacecraft is scheduled to deliver a return capsule with asteroid dust on Sunday.
  • The capsule should land in the Utah desert if all goes according to plan.

On Sunday, Earth should receive a very special package from space, if all goes according to plan.

After nearly three years, NASA's OSIRIS-REx is scheduled to finally deliver the largest asteroid sample ever to the Utah desert at approximately 10:55 a.m. ET.

That's right, an asteroid sample is headed for Earth. It doesn't happen every day. In fact, it's only ever been attempted twice before.

OSIRIS-REx began orbiting the asteroid called Bennu in 2018. Then, in 2020, it closed in on the space rock that's as wide as the Empire State building is tall, and scooped up what scientists estimate to be enough dirt and dust to fill a cup, per NPR.

If the payload touches down safely on Sunday morning as planned, teams of scientists and officials will begin a complicated ballet to secure the valuable scientific data it carries.

Every early step after touchdown is delicately planned, but once scientists get the sample out of its carrier, that's when the fun begins.

Bake it, fire lasers at it, and cut it in half

Portions of the fragments taken from the sample are set to be shipped to over 200 researchers, where "they'll be baked, they'll be lasered, they'll be cut in half," Noah Petro, a NASA planetary scientist, told Insider.

Scientists have a plan to analyze everything from the sample, even the inside and outside of the return capsule carrying it, Petro said. In total, scientists in labs across the globe aim to study the asteroid using 60 different analytical techniques, Dante Lauretta, the principal investigator for OSIRIS-REx, said during a NASA press conference Friday.

The goal is for scientists to "understand processes that occurred before our solar system even existed," Lauretta said.

Lauretta said they estimate the sample contains about 250 grams of regolith, the dusty material on the asteroid's surface. He said that's well above the minimum they promised to deliver, and that it should be a sufficient amount to study.

Why Bennu?

Lori Glaze, director of NASA's Planetary Science Division, said in the press conference that asteroids sit in different sections across the galaxy. Each section contains information about a different time period of our galaxy's history.

Bennu is an ideal candidate because it comes from what scientists think is one of the oldest sections, and can therefore give us details about how our solar system formed.

Whatever they discover from analyzing the cosmic dust, Petro is pretty sure they're going to be surprised. When he explained what he thinks they'll find, he was excited.

"We think we're gonna find chemistry that basically would have seeded the Earth," billions of years ago, "with the components that led to complex life on the Earth," he said.


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