Mankind on an Asteroid: Why Osiris-Rex Landing on Bennu is a Milestone in Our Search for Life

Depiction of NASA's asteroid probe, Osiris-Rex, 'kissing' the surface of asteroid Bennu to collect rock samples earlier today. (Image: NASA/Twitter)

Depiction of NASA's asteroid probe, Osiris-Rex, 'kissing' the surface of asteroid Bennu to collect rock samples earlier today. (Image: NASA/Twitter)

NASA probe Osiris-Rex created history by ‘kissing’ the rocky surface of asteroid Bennu and collecting what might be the biggest samples from space since the Apollo missions to the moon.


Shouvik Das

Osiris-Rex has not been the most high profile space probe in recent memory – that title will likely belong to missions such as NASA’s first private spaceflight with SpaceX, or India’s Chandrayaan-2 by ISRO. However, in the rather quiet quadrants of space, about 330 million kilometres away from Earth, Osiris-Rex has been up to achieving a very important feat – understand the origin of our solar system, and come back with the biggest chunk of space rock that mankind will have collected ever since the legendary Apollo lunar missions.

This feat saw its milestone moment earlier today, when NASA’s Osiris-Rex space probe ‘kissed’ the surface of asteroid Bennu, fired into a boulder patch on the asteroid, collected a smash-grab of space rock samples and flew back away to reenter its designated orbit. While the downlinking of data is presently on, and in the coming hours, we will expect to see far more detailed imagery and concrete data on what Osiris-Rex has managed to collect, the move put into motion a new chapter in the very basic reason behind our space missions – who are we, and how did we come here?

The importance of the touchdown

Bennu, it seems, has been a surprisingly convenient asteroid. Not only was it relatively close to us, but scientific research has shown that Bennu was most likely born within the first 10 million years of the formation of the solar system. As a result, it has likely remained unperturbed for close to 4.5 billion years, and as a result, it is believed that Bennu’s surface still preserves most of the conditions that were prevalent back when the planets, including our Earth, was formed. In essence, what Bennu is to us is a time capsule, which has conveniently preserved the chemical constituency of the universe in its formative years.

If Osiris-Rex’s touchdown-and-go (TAG) manoeuvre went as per expectations, which the Lockheed Martin Control Centre in Colorado, USA announced it did, then the probe will have collected not just the biggest piece of space particles since the legendary Apollo missions. It has collected specimen of particles that can help us in understanding what led to the formation of our planet, in turn getting better explanations to how our planet has evolved over time. This data can then be used to refine our search for life outside of Earth, and better identify potential planets that may already support life, or show signs that hint at the possibility of life in the past or the future.

Osiris-Rex is scheduled to come back home to us in 2023, with a payload of space rocks weighing at least 60 grams – tiny by mass, but massive by weight. As NASA administrator rightly said after the probe’s touchdown on Bennu today, once Osiris-Rex is back, it will have brought to us fodder that will be studied by generations of scientists to come. After all, the lunar particles brought back to Earth in the Apollo missions is still being unsealed and studied.

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