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UArizona spacecraft to deliver gift of knowledge

Grabbed sample of asteroid to bring to Earth
Posted at 3:59 PM, Dec 23, 2020
and last updated 2020-12-23 20:23:28-05

TUCSON, Ariz. (KGUN) — You might not think a collection of rocks and dust is much of a gift -- but you probably aren't on the team of University of Arizona scientists waiting to get their hands on rocks and dust their Osiris Rex spacecraft collected from an asteroid earlier this year.

Osiris Rex plunged into the asteroid Bennu back in October, collected a canister of rock and dust, and sealed it safely inside.

Now it’s preparing to bring that package to Earth.

UArizona scientist and principal project investigator Dante Lauretta has compared opening that canister to unwrapping the best Christmas gift ever because it could help explain how water reached Earth and help explain how life began.

“We think objects like Bennu deliver that water, and simultaneously the organic material that may have triggered the origin of life. So we're really seeking to understand those early stages of planetary formation, to understand how life arose on earth, and how likely it is to occur elsewhere in the universe.”

When Bennu turned out to be rougher than expected the tricky process of touching an asteroid and backing away became even trickier.

Then there was more suspense when the mission team saw the probe collected so much of the asteroid that the collection device jammed open and was leaking material they’d worked so hard to get. They sealed the collector in it’s return capsule sooner than planned. Now they are confident they’ll still have plenty to analyze.

Dante Lauretta’s spent most of his career planning the mission but he’ll have to be patient a little longer. So will teams of scientists at the University of Arizona and around the world. Osiris Rex's long trip back to Earth will take more than a year and a half.

But that will not be slack time. There’s plenty to do to make the most of the samples once they arrive.

Lauretta says, “We've got world class electron microscopes, and we're awaiting a delivery of a new, what we call an ion microprobe cutting edge state of the art, the best instruments that you can imagine, and we've got a great team of early career scientists that we've hired onto the faculty at the University of Arizona to help with the analysis program.”

And that analysis of what Osiris Rex captured could go on for years. Some material could be set aside for future scientists to see what they can learn with technologies that haven’t even been invented yet.