© Reuters. FILE PHOTO: A mosaic image of asteroid Bennu, composed of 12 PolyCam images collected on December 2, 2018 by the OSIRIS-REx spacecraft from a range of 15 miles (24 km). NASA/Goddard/University of Arizona/Handout via REUTERS
(Reuters) – A NASA spacecraft, which scientists believe has collected samples from an asteroid, began its two-year journey back to Earth on Monday.
NASA’s OSIRIS-REx spacecraft is attempting to complete a mission to visit Bennu, a skyscraper-sized asteroid some 200 million miles (320 million km) from Earth, survey the surface, collect samples and deliver them back to Earth.
Staff celebrated at the OSIRIS-REx control room in Colorado as the space vehicle pushed away from the asteroid, whose acorn-shaped body formed in the early days of our solar system. OSIRIS-REx arrived at Bennu in 2018.
The spacecraft found traces of hydrogen and oxygen molecules – part of the recipe for water and thus the potential for life – embedded in the asteroid’s rocky surface, said Dante Lauretta, the OSIRIS-REx mission’s principal investigator, in 2018.
The trip back to Earth will take about two years. The spacecraft will then eject a capsule containing the asteroid samples, which NASA says will land in a remote area of Utah.
NASA says samples will be distributed to research laboratories worldwide, but 75% of the samples will be preserved at the Johnson Space Center in Houston for future generations to study with technologies not yet created.
The roughly $800 million, minivan-sized OSIRIS-REx spacecraft, built by Lockheed Martin (NYSE:), launched in 2016 to grab and return the first U.S. sample of pristine asteroid materials. Japan is the only other country to have accomplished such a feat.
Asteroids are among the leftover debris from the solar system’s formation some 4.5 billion years ago. A sample could hold clues to the origins of life on Earth, scientists say.
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