NASA is in the final phase of its historic OSIRIS-REx mission to bring samples collected from an asteroid back to Earth. The American space probe, which was launched in 2016, collected samples from an asteroid called Bennu almost three years ago and is scheduled to return to Earth on Sunday around 9:00 a.m. local time.
The return process is a high-risk operation. About 108,000 km from Earth, the probe will release a capsule containing the samples. This capsule will enter the atmosphere at a speed of 43,000 km/h, reaching temperatures of around 2,800 degrees Celsius before landing in the Utah desert. Two successive parachutes will be used to achieve a soft landing, and a recovery team will collect the capsule.
The material collected from Bennu, possibly the most abundant ever recovered on such a mission, is expected to provide a better understanding of the formation of our solar system and how Earth became habitable.
Once on the ground, the material will be moved to a specialized laboratory at NASA’s Johnson Space Center in Houston, Texas, where it will be analyzed for several days. NASA hopes to reveal the first findings at a press conference on October 11.
This mission is especially relevant as it could shed light on the role of asteroids in delivering “seeds of life” to Earth from outer space, a process that could have contributed to the development of life on our planet. Additionally, the study of asteroids such as Bennu and Ryugu (explored by Japan) could provide clues to answer some of the deepest questions about the origin of life and biological evolution on Earth.