NASA confirms largest asteroid sample ever collected, double what was expected

NASA recently announced a major achievement in its OSIRIS-REx asteroid sample return mission. The spacecraft collected over 120 grams of material from the near-Earth asteroid Bennu – more than double the minimum sample size required! This marks the largest sample ever retrieved from an asteroid, surpassing past missions.

First, let’s briefly introduce the OSIRIS-REx spacecraft and mission goals. OSIRIS-REx stands for Origins, Spectral Interpretation, Resource Identification, Security-Regolith Explorer. It was launched in 2016 with the ambitious goal of rendezvousing with the asteroid Bennu, collecting a sample, and returning it to Earth.

Bennu was selected specifically because it’s a primitive carbonaceous asteroid, meaning it contains organic compounds and hydrated minerals that may have been present in the early solar system. Studying material from Bennu can give insights into planet formation, the origins of life, and more.

Historic Sample Return

In late 2022, after extensively surveying and mapping Bennu’s surface, OSIRIS-REx finally collected its sample by touching the asteroid’s surface for just seconds. Thrusters disturbed the surface and churned up regolith and rocks into the sampler head.

Once the sample was confirmed secured, the spacecraft began its long journey back to Earth, finally parachuting the capsule containing the asteroid material into the Utah desert this September.

nasa confirms largest asteroid sample ever collected double what it
NASA confirms largest asteroid sample ever collected, double what was expected 2

When scientists opened the capsule, they were amazed to find over 120 grams of sample – more than double the minimum 60 grams required for the mission goals! This is the largest sample ever collected and returned from an asteroid, surpassing Japan’s Hayabusa missions.

Why a Bigger Sample Matters

Having a larger size sample enables much more detailed analysis and a wider range of studies. There are more regolith grains and rock fragments to examine, increasing the odds of finding rarer materials and diversity.

With over 120 grams, there’s enough to allow hundreds of scientists around the world the chance to apply cutting-edge instruments and techniques to analyze the sample. Larger samples can also be divided up into portions reserved for future generations of scientists as technology improves.

The Unexpected Bonus

One reason the sizable sample was so surprising is that collecting material from Bennu proved more difficult than expected. Its surface was more rocky than predicted. So NASA was prepared for a smaller amount.

Exceeding the minimum sample requirement by this much was an unexpected bonus and demonstrates how OSIRIS-REx pushed the limits of engineering to maximize its return. This will boost our understanding of asteroids and the solar system’s history.

The Bottom Line

OSIRIS-REx’s record-breaking asteroid sample return is a major accomplishment for NASA and space science. The mission faced challenges but still delivered a treasure trove of primordial asteroid material. As scientists study Bennu’s secrets, exciting discoveries are sure to be made!

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