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NASA’s asteroid samples could unlock secrets about the universe

By Breanna Lu and Michelle Qiao Dec. 9, 2020


Since its launch on Sep. 8, 2016, the Origins, Spectral Interpretation, Resource Identification, Security, Regolith Explorer (OSIRIS-REx) spacecraft has journeyed to collect carbonaceous samples from Bennu, an ancient asteroid approximately two hundred million miles away from Earth in hopes of furthering society’s understanding of surrounding terrestrial life.


Rachel Kim Art


After New Horizons and Juno, OSIRIS-REx is the third largest space exploration mission in the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA)’s New Frontier Program, a collection of Solar System exploration missions. After the spacecraft’s clearance for takeoff on June 15, 2015, engineers implemented a fuel-saving technique called the Earth Gravity Assist Maneuver, which utilizes the Earth’s gravity to propel the space probe.


OSIRIS-REx’s preliminary objectives were to retrieve at least 2.1 ounces of organic molecule samples from Bennu, record information about the sample-site and map out the asteroid’s landscape. Projected to return to Earth in September 2023, the OSIRIS-REx will bring back a capsule of collected material by parachute.


“The resources for this mission are well spent because it is important to understand the world we live in, how ecosystems function, how life-forms sustain themselves and how animals and humans were made—questions the findings from Bennu can help answer,” Freshman Kaitlyn Chan said.


As the first U.S. spacecraft to obtain samples from an asteroid on Oct. 20, 2020, the OSIRIS-REx used a robotic arm known as the Touch-and-Go Sample Acquisition Mechanism (TAGSAM). Consisting of an 11 foot arm, a round head and bottled nitrogen gas, TAGSAM gathered samples of loose rock and dirt. When nearing Bennu, OSIRIS-REx mobilized TAGSAM and dug into the asteroid’s surface, catching debris Rachel Kim Art

in its shuttle head. By attaching a

Camera Suite and Laser Altimeter to the TAGSAM, the OSIRIS-REx was then able to capture images of the sample and the terrain.


NASA decided to authorize a space mission to Bennu because of its proximity to Earth, which made it comparatively easier to reach than other planetoids. According to National Geographic, the mission would bring back more extraterrestrial samples than any other outer space voyage since the Apollo moon landings, providing scientists with valuable insights about the origin of life in the Solar System. Deemed a “time-capsule” by Lori Glaze, director of NASA’s planetary science division, Bennu is considered to be one of the Solar System’s primordial artifacts and therefore, highly likely to contain organic molecules from the birth of the Milky Way Galaxy. By analyzing celestial samples, scientists hope to determine how the first organisms progressed into the large variety of life-forms today, which could further researchers’ understanding of how life-forms adapt to their environment and reproduce.


By analyzing celestial samples, scientists hope to determine how the first organisms progressed into the large variety of life-forms today, which could further researchers’ understanding of how life-forms adapt to their environment and reproduce.

Aside from carbon-rich rubble, Bennu contains another essential mineral for life: water. If scientists are able to separate mineral water into hydrogen and oxygen, it can be used to make rocket fuel, allowing for increased deep-space travel. Bennu is also found to have an abundant supply of other necessary resources such as platinum, iron and gold, which could be extracted by space mining in the possible future. Additionally, scientists hope that the OSIRIS-REx mission can further help with research about the asteroid’s possibly cataclysmic orbit. The spacecraft’s extensive observations will refine the previous prediction of 0.037 percent of collision in 2135 and help researchers better understand the Yarkovsky effect, which explains how absorbing light can influence an object’s trajectory.


As technology advances and the curiosity of our universe grows, space missions will potentially increase in number and in frequency.

“Society is having an increased interest in space exploration because technology is evolving and advancing. Space missions could lead scientists to discover new forms of life, new elements or new galaxies,” Sophomore Kylie Duong said.


If the return to Earth is successful, the discovery of carbon on Bennu may encourage scientists to continue studying asteroids. Future missions are already in the works: NASA is planning a visit to the metallic asteroid Psyche as well as building the new Lucy spacecraft to visit Jupiter’s Trojan asteroids.


Through deep-space exploration missions such as the OSIRIS-REx, scientists are presented with opportunities to uncover the origins of life, development of various life-forms and preemptively prepare for asteroid collisions. As technology advances and the curiosity of our universe grows, space missions will potentially increase in number and in frequency.

 

About the Contributors

Breanna Lu

Staff Writer


Breanna Lu is a freshman and a new staff writer. She enjoys binge watching sci-fi movies and her favorite book genre is murder mysteries/crime fiction. In her free time, you will most likely find her asleep or chatting with her friends.







Michelle Qiao

Staff Writer


Michelle Qiao is a sophomore at Leland High School and a staff writer. She loves to play volleyball and spends her free time reading, drinking coffee and watching Pixar movies.

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