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UA preparing to analyze asteroid samples delivered by space probe

UA designed Osiris Rex probe to land samples in September
Posted at 7:47 PM, Jul 26, 2023

The University of Arizona took the lead in a mission to grab a sample of an asteroidand bring it to Earth for analysis. That sample is set to land in September. Now the lab at UA Lunar and Planetary Sciences is preparing to examine what the Osiris Rex probe sends back.

UA plans to get a lot of value out of a tiny bit of material. The amount of material they expect to get is about 15 grams, maybe a little more. Here’s some perspective on that 15 grams: it is the weight of six pennies.

University of Arizona designed and led the Osiris Rex mission. The spacecraft is on a nearly seven year round trip to grab a sample of the asteroid Bennu. The sample grab worked so well the probe collected much more than predicted.

Now the challenge is to bring the samples safely through the Earth’s atmosphere to a soft landing in Utah.

Crews have been at the Utah site practicing to recover the capsule. They will send the real sample container to the same NASA lab in Houston that handles the moon rocks. From there, researchers around the world will get a share of the samples.

Assistant Professor Jessica Barnes is eager to see those samples under her microscope.

“It’s a little stressful because, you know, it's taken a lot of people a lot of money, a lot of effort to get to the point where we will have samples in our hands. So it's not something I take lightly. These samples are really precious. You’ve got to be super careful with them. But it's gonna be really remarkable to have them here and then to get to study them and be the first people to start unlocking the secrets that Bennu has to tell us.”

The secrets Bennu may share are no less than clues to how the solar system—and even life– formed. Researchers already know Bennu holds a lot of carbon—and carbon is an essential for any life we know about.

Thomas Zega leads the imaging lab.

He says, “We don’t expect to find organisms of any kind in the sample but the building blocks, the organic building blocks that may have led to life, we may in fact be looking at those.”

The analysis will run so deep it requires electron microscopes able to view samples as small as a single atom.

A different electron microscope at the lab can use a beam of energy to carve into a tiny sample to expose what’s under the surface.

Zega says there could be quick, exciting, surprising discoveries, but also years and years of analysis.

He says other work at the lab is an example. Scientists are analyzing moon rocks Apollo astronauts collected more than fifty years ago but they’re doing it with tools much more powerful than NASA had when the rocks first came to Earth.

The University of Arizona took the lead in a mission to grab a sample of an asteroid and bring it to Earth for analysis. That sample is set to land in September. Now the lab at UA Lunar and Planetary Sciences is preparing to examine what the Osiris Rex probe sends back.

UA plans to get a lot of value out of a tiny bit of material. The amount of material they expect to get is about 15 grams, maybe a little more. Here’s some perspective on that 15 grams: it is the weight of six pennies.

University of Arizona designed and led the Osiris Rex mission. The spacecraft is on a nearly seven year round trip to grab a sample of the asteroid Bennu. The sample grab worked so well the probe collected much more than predicted.

Now the challenge is to bring the samples safely through the Earth’s atmosphere to a soft landing in Utah.

Crews have been at the Utah site practicing to recover the capsule. They will send the real sample container to the same NASA lab in Houston that handles the moon rocks. From there, researchers around the world will get a share of the samples.

Assistant Professor Jessica Barnes is eager to see those samples under her microscope.

“It’s a little stressful because, you know, it's taken a lot of people a lot of money, a lot of effort to get to the point where we will have samples in our hands. So it's not something I take lightly. These samples are really precious. You’ve got to be super careful with them. But it's gonna be really remarkable to have them here and then to get to study them and be the first people to start unlocking the secrets that Bennu has to tell us.”

The secrets Bennu may share are no less than clues to how the solar system—and even life– formed. Researchers already know Bennu holds a lot of carbon—and carbon is an essential for any life we know about.

Thomas Zega leads the imaging lab.

He says, “We don’t expect to find organisms of any kind in the sample but the building blocks, the organic building blocks that may have led to life, we may in fact be looking at those.”

The analysis will run so deep it requires electron microscopes able to view samples as small as a single atom.

A different electron microscope at the lab can use a beam of energy to carve into a tiny sample to expose what’s under the surface.

Zega says there could be quick, exciting, surprising discoveries, but also years and years of analysis.

He says other work at the lab is an example. Scientists are analyzing moon rocks Apollo astronauts collected more than fifty years ago but they’re doing it with tools much more powerful than NASA had when the rocks first came to Earth.