NASA’s Osiris-Rex capsule is set to make an awe-inspiring return to Earth, hurtling through the atmosphere at a speed surpassing 15 times that of a rifle bullet. While its entry will create a striking fireball in the sky, a combination of a heat shield and parachutes will facilitate a gradual descent, ultimately resulting in a gentle touchdown in the pristine expanse of Utah’s West Desert.
The much-anticipated event, scheduled for Sunday, involves the OSIRIS-REx spacecraft, which is poised to bestow upon us a unique celestial gift: a pristine sample collected from the near-Earth asteroid known as Bennu.
Should all proceed as planned, the spacecraft will release a capsule harboring an estimated 8.8 ounces of asteroid rocks and space-borne soil, guiding it to a designated landing zone within the Utah desert.
A live stream of this historic sample delivery will be provided by NASA, commencing at 10 a.m. ET on Sunday. The capsule is anticipated to penetrate Earth’s atmosphere at 10:42 a.m. ET, hurtling at an astonishing speed of approximately 27,650 miles per hour (44,498 kilometers per hour), before gently settling in Utah just 13 minutes later.
Following the capsule’s release, OSIRIS-REx will embark on an ongoing exploration of the solar system, focusing on a detailed examination of another asteroid, Apophis.
Contained within the capsule is a cargo of immense significance: a handful of dust collected from the formidable asteroid Bennu, a celestial body of mountainous proportions. This sample holds the promise of unraveling some of the most profound questions humanity has pondered, including the very origins of life on Earth.
Professor Dante Lauretta, the principal investigator on this mission, articulates the significance, stating, “When we get the 250g (9oz) of asteroid Bennu back on Earth, we’ll be looking at material that existed before our planet, maybe even some grains that existed before our Solar System.”
Prevailing scientific thought suggests that many of the fundamental building blocks crucial to our planet’s formation were delivered during a period of intense asteroid impacts early in Earth’s history, potentially resembling the nature of Bennu.
Engineers have meticulously orchestrated the final adjustments to the Osiris-Rex spacecraft’s trajectory, leaving only the pivotal “go, no-go” decision to release the capsule for its journey back to Earth this upcoming weekend.
In the quest to piece together our origin story, essential questions surrounding Earth’s formation, habitability, the source of our oceans and atmosphere, and the origins of organic molecules that underpin all life on our planet are poised to receive profound insights.