Osiris Rex Spacecraft performs two missions on asteroids (Bennu & Apophis)

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Just a few days before a NASA spacecraft named Osiris Rex has come back after a tour of an asteroid named ‘Bennu’. Not only did it orbit it but also took some sand from there and now has delivered it on earth. This has not happened for the first time. A few years before Japanese spacecraft named ‘Hayabusa 2 brought to earth sand from another asteroid ’RYUGU’. These are according to science, great achievements, but what is the importance of understanding (analyzing) this sand.


What is Asteroids


Our solar system was formed approximately 4.5 billion years ago. These planets also come into being at that time as our earth or Mars or Venus etc etc. But there are something which did not become a part of the planet, such as rocks. We call these rocks asteroids. They are small sized as well as big sized and they are also orbiting the sun. These asteroids have been crashing on the Earth small ones and big ones and they will keep on crashing in the future also. But there has not been much change in the asteroids during the last 4.5 billion years.


There are different type of changes in the planets due to air water or lava. But these rocks in a way preserve the conditions present in the beginning of the solar system.


Osiris Rex Mission on Bennu


Now you must have heard about Osiris Rex (a terrific mission). This was launched in 2016, and it went towards an asteroid Bennu. This Bennu is called carbon rich carbonaceous asteroid. It is almost half of km big. It is a little bigger than the Empire state building (a high rise).


This Osiris Rex spacecraft reached asteroid Bennu in 2018 and start orbiting it. This actually is difficult job because this asteroid is a small body one and a half km only and its gravity is also very less. But one of its aim was that a prob should land on it (Bennu) and collect samples from there. The idea was asteroid Bennu would be very smooth and sand would be easily available on its surface but when Osiris Rex reached there it found that asteroid Bennu is not as smooth in fact, it is full of rocks.


Bennu Osiris Rex
Credit: NASA


Big rocks  (you can call them boulders also) our present there and they are loosely linked to one another via gravity. You are seeing the picture of the surface of Bennu. You can guess, the thought it (Bennu), would be smooth and the intention of an easy landing did not remain easy. You can, as you are seeing landing on such an asteroid is not easy. Osiris Rex Kept orbiting Bennu for two years. It studied different things, but one it tries to find out was which place is suitable for taking samples.


In 2020 Osiris Rex Probe reached this asteroid. It went there, and there is a vacuum cleaner type of unit in it in which it samples were collected and it took it back to Osiris Rex.

In 2021 this spacecraft Osiris Rex (imagine this is happening millions of km far off) left the orbit of Bennu and started moving towards Earth.

In 2023 last month on 24th September it reached earth released the capsule in which there is 1/2 lb material of Bennu in the Earth atmosphere and then it landed near Salt Lake City in the Utah desert of America.


Osiris Rex replace Osiris Apex


If you are still not impressed I will tell you Osiris Rex after leaving the sample is moving towards another asteroid. Its name is ‘Apophis’ and this spacecraft will reach there in 2029 and the name of this spacecraft has been converted to “OSIRIS APEX”.

But this is not the first time humans have brought asteroid’s dirt to Earth. The Japanese space agency JAXA had a mission named Hayabusa which was not fully successful it got contaminated. But another spacecraft, Hayabusa 2 went to another asteroid named ‘Ryugu’ and brought its dirt back to earth in 2020.


Ryugu and Bennu


Now these Bennu and Ryugu are relatively same type of asteroids. These are called carbon rich or carbonaceous asteroids. Ryugu and Bennu are relatively same in size and composition. It will be very interesting in a way, when their samples will be analyzed and compared and then it will be seen what things are different. But what is the reason we are bringing the dirt asteroids to Earth? There are three big reasons for it.


First Reason


The first thing, these asteroids have preserved the early conditions of our solar system. When we study these asteroids we find out about the origins of our own solar system. These asteroids fall on our earth also when they fall on earth they passed through our atmosphere, so they get a little modified and when they fall on earth, although the effort of the astronomers is to immediately collect the piece of asteroids (called meteorite) and preserve it but even in a little time the earth’s contamination comes onto it.


Now this dirt which has come via Hayabusa 2 and Osiris Rex are, in a way, pristine or clear (pure) samples. There is no earth contamination present in it. In fact, they have recently recently opened the case of the sample of Osiris Rex.


Asteroid Ryugu
Credit: NASA/JAXA/Dan Gallagher

You can see how careful they are so that no earthly contamination comes in it, which way and in what type of lab they are opening these sample.


Second Reason


The second thing is asteroids have played an important role in the development of our earth. For example, the sample of Ryugu brought by Hayabusa 2 contain a lot of water. These are called hydrated minerals, meaning water is mixed with the molecule of dirt. Now scientist think that the water pleasant on earth to a large extent brought by these asteroids. Previously the thought was that comets were the primary source but now after the analysis of Ryugu sample the idea is asteroids, in the last 4.5 billion years and specially in the beginning have been crashing (a lot of them) on earth and bringing water with them.


Now, this is not only about water, rather the molecules of life through which life evolved the gas is there also came to earth because of those asteroids. For example the analysis of Ryugu showed many amino acids (amino acids have importance for life), not only other amino acids but there is a particular molecule named Uracil, a part of RNA (Ribonucleic acid) which is a very important molecule of our life rather the guess is life on earth began because of RNA, is present in this Ryugu sample.


Third Reason


The third thing is presently we are talking about creation life probably came because of asteroids. But the third reason is about destruction, because as you know, if big asteroids crash on earth, it causes heavy damage to life. Maybe these mass extinction as of dinosaurs, people say it was either a comet or an asteroid.


Bennu Asteroids Sample


This Bennu asteroid from where Osiris Rex brought a sample is really such an asteroid Which astronomers call a near earth object and is actually a bit dangerous.

The astronomers estimate that around 2082 there may be a chance (1 in 2000) that this Bennu may crash on earth. This chance is minimum but if we can understand it if we can study it (sample) then we can find out, if we have to deflect it (asteroid), what is it made of. if it’s solid rock its deflection technique will be different. As we know that Bennu and Ryugu both are like rubble then we have to use

some other techniques to deflect them.


I just mentioned Bennu’s chances are in 2082 minimum chance 1 in 2000 that it crashes on earth but that was my mistake actually its chances are in 2182 and not 2082. We have enough time to know whether its orbit will actually interact with Earth.


Now What will happen to these samples.


From the samples of Osiris Rex almost 25% of sand (total is around ½ a pound) this is not so that rackful’s (of sample) have come the sand is about ½ pound. Out of that 25% will be studied by 200 scientists in about 35 institutions. Out of this 4% sample will go to Canada because there was collaboration with them. ½% of that sand will go to Japan. Remember how important is the comparison. The teams of Osiris Rex and Hayabusa 2 are working with one another and this is a good example of co-operation.

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