NASA Just Brought The Largest-Ever Asteroid Sample Back To Earth. (Thanks In Part To Legendary Queen Guitarist Brian May)

Daily Maverick - After a journey of billions of kilometres, NASA’s OSIRIS-REx mission has culminated in a small black capsule blazing through the sky before touching down in the Utah desert.

Inside is likely to be the largest ever sample of dust and rock returned from an asteroid. Extracted and brought back with great technical ingenuity from an asteroid called Bennu, scientists will now study in search of clues about the origins of the Solar System and life itself.

The seven-year mission took OSIRIS-REx to a near-Earth carbon-rich asteroid, which it orbited for two and a half years, mapping its surface and measuring properties such as its density and spin. This “rubble pile” asteroid also has a (very) small chance of one day impacting Earth, so getting intricate measurements of its orbit and other dynamics was also a mission goal.

I don't even know where to begin with this because my brain is way too smooth to even try to comprehend how humans are capable of accomplishing this. I can't even believe we're able to launch things into space, with the Earth moving as fast as it is, and hit an intended target, thousands and thousands of miles away. I know it's math, and physics, but it still makes no sense to me. I'm amazed seeing quarterbacks like Aaron Rodgers launch a ball 60 yards downfield and hit a receiver perfectly in stride. I'm beyond amazed that NASA sends spacecraft into outerspace to hover around an asteroid for 2 and a half years, mapping its surface, while traveling through space, before probing it and extracting material from it. 

Giphy Images.

There are some smart fucking people in this world.

These primitive bodies – some more than 4.5 billion years old – can also shed light on the origins of life, because they tell us about the distribution of water, minerals and other elements such as carbon. There is also an element of self-interest in studying these asteroids, to understand the risk they may pose if they are heading Earth’s way.

Sample return missions are the gold standard for analysing the makeup of extraterrestrial bodies. They can bring pieces from a different planet or asteroid back to Earth to study.

Sample return missions are technically very challenging. Not only does a spacecraft have to travel hundreds of millions of kilometres from Earth, but it has to match speed with the target (not just zoom past), find a safe landing site, touch down to collect a sample (without crashing), stow the sample in a sealed capsule, take off again, and return to Earth. Much of this process needs to be autonomous, as the time delay for communications with Earth is too long for remote control.


Most of the spacecraft we send out into the Solar System are never meant to return. Time, space, and entropy overtake them, or else they’re purposely sent crashing to their doom at the end of their missions. But not OSIRIS-REx. Its mission was only a success when it returned to Earth with its rare cargo.

NASA’s OSIRIS-REx collected its sample of asteroid Bennu in October 2020. Since that time, we’ve been eagerly awaiting the material’s delivery to Earth, where it can be scrutinized rigorously in laboratories in different nations.

On September 24th, after a two-year journey from Bennu to Earth, the long-anticipated day arrived, and the spacecraft released its sample-return capsule. NASA used the spacecraft’s cameras to record the release.

The capsule was released from Bennu at 4:42 AM at a distance of over 100,000 km (63,000 miles) from Earth. When it entered the atmosphere, the sample capsule was screaming along at 44,500 km/h (27,650 mph.) The capsule is designed to withstand all the heat from the friction, but not an impact. The capsule deployed its drogue parachute at 8:44 AM, and by the time it landed, its speed was reduced to 18 km/h (11 mph.)

Seriously how? 27,000 miles per hour? First off how do we know of a substance that doesn't turn to dust or burst into flames traveling that speed? And secondly, how do we manufacture something made out of it that we send 63,000 miles into space and back to us here? Bonkers.

With the help of Queen guitarist, Brian May, who has a PHD in astrophysics. That's how. - May is a friend of asteroid sample mission leader Dante Lauretta. The two share an interest in space and a passion for Tucson, Az.

“As the OSIRIS-REx mission progressed, I couldn’t help but share some of the latest developments with him,” Lauretta wrote in the preface of “Bennu 3-D: Anatomy of an Asteroid,” a book he co-authored with May. " . . . To my delight, Brian showed a keen interest in the mission and the science behind it. It was clear that he was not just a casual fan, but a true space enthusiast and an advocate for space exploration.”

May’s contribution was developing stereoscopic images of Bennu’s surface, May said in the book. Such images add “a depth effect to flat images.” The effect has been been compared to 3D glasses.

The whole operation wasn’t without drama, though.

The sample return capsule uses two parachutes. At first, the capsule was travelling so fast that deploying a standard type of parachute would be ineffective. It would simply be torn to shreds or ripped away from the spacecraft.

To avoid this, the capsule first deploys a drogue chute. Drogue chutes are designed to be deployed from high-speed objects because they’re smaller. They lower an object’s velocity but not enough to land. The sample return’s drogue chute scratched enough of the capsule’s speed that it was safe to deploy its landing chute without it being torn apart. But the mission team didn’t receive confirmation that the drogue chute had deployed. And without it, it would’ve been game over.

In a press briefing after the capsule landed, he explained the intense anxiety leading up to the capsule’s safe landing as he rode in a helicopter toward the landing site. “I was just trying to make sure I didn’t totally break down in front of an international audience, right? It’s like, okay, you got to keep it together,” Lauretta said.

The entire process, down to the landing, was flawless.

“This box when it is opened of material from the surface of Bennu can tell us untold secrets of the origins of the universe, the origins of our planet and the origins of life itself,” May said on his website. “What an incredibly exciting day.”

This is pretty wild when you think about it. Not just that it was mission accomplished, but what may actually come from these studies, like May suggested, now that NASA has these samples back on Earth.


Let's just hope there's no Venom issues to worry about.

h/t @Mark_Renton96