how-important-is-the-first-asteroid-sample

How important is the First Asteroid Sample?

 

Context: Recently, NASA’s asteroid-hunting spacecraft Origins-Spectral Interpretation-Resource Identification-Security-Regolith Explorer(OSIRIS-REx) dropped a capsule containing a sample of rocks and dust that it had collected from the asteroid 101955 Bennu over the earth, which landed in the Utah desert

 

Scientists will study its composition, and share pieces of it with their peers around the world. 

 

About OSIRIS-REx’s Mission

  • It was launched in 2016 to collect samples from the asteroid Bennu.
  • The spacecraft completed a series of complex maneuvers to propel itself into orbit around Bennu two years later
  • The mission almost failed when the asteroid’s craggy surface rendered OSIRIS-REx’s height-measuring instrument useless
  • To prevent the probe from sinking through the rubble-strewn surface, the probe’s touch-and-go Sample Acquisition Mechanism used a blast of nitrogen gas to avoid contaminating the debris flying everywhere, including into the spacecraft’s sample collection chamber. 
  • After its successful swoop, OSIRIS-REx took off and gradually pulled away from the asteroid’s gravity before setting course for earth.
  • After releasing its sample capsule above our planet’s atmosphere, the spacecraft will begin a new journey to study another asteroid, Apophis, in 2029.

 

Importance of the Mission

  • The asteroid belt between Mars and Jupiter is inhabited by thousands of space rocks, ranging from pebbles to the 800-km-wide Ceres
  • A part of the orbits of some of these bring them closer to the sun than Mercury. Sometimes, such eccentric orbits also bring them quite close to the earth
  • Planetary defense experts are keen to know more about such near-earth asteroids (NEA), because of its probability with earth’s collision. The problem is that even if these rocks don’t directly threaten the earth, planetary gravitation can cause their paths to change with each orbit. 
  • Scientists believe that along with comets, carbon-rich asteroids like Bennu may have seeded the earth with primordial life as they smashed into the young planet more than four billion years ago.
  • NASA’s Galileo (launched in 1989) and NEAR Shoemaker (1996) and Japan’s Hayabusa 1 (2003) and Hayabusa 2 (2014) missions have found that many asteroids are solidified debris from supernovae, and are made of the same stuff as the solar system: dust, rocks, water ice, and an alloy of iron, nickel and cobalt — a sort of natural steel.

 

Conclusion

 

For now, all eyes are on the regolith that OSIRIS-REx has brought back to the earth from Bennu, to help scientists look back in time to the violent birth of the solar system. Maybe, the material could contain organic molecules that help us tell the story of how life on earth began.

 

The material can be extracted from asteroids and we can also tap the water present in them in the form of permafrost or saturated minerals as a resource in space. 

 

NEAs could be better pit stops than the moon where space missions can drop payloads off to be returned to the ground. 

 

But there are challenges like low gravity, lack of atmosphere, and radiation exposure that need to be overcome first 

 

 

Imp for: GS Paper III

Topic: Science & Technology, Space Missions, NASA

 

 

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