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What just happened? NASA's OSIRIS-REx (Origins, Spectral Interpretation, Resource Identification and Security – Regolith Explorer) asteroid sample collection mission completed a key objective over the weekend. On Sunday at approximately 10:52 a.m. Eastern, a capsule containing a sample of rocks and dust collected from an asteroid named Bennu touched down in the Utah desert near Salt Lake City.
The capsule was quickly secured and transported by helicopter to a temporary clean room set up at a hangar at the Department of Defense's Utah Test and Training Range.
The OSIRIS-REx mission launched back on September 8, 2016, with the ambitious goal of rendezvousing with Bennu, collecting a sample from its surface, and returning it back to Earth within roughly seven years.
Bennu was discovered in 1999 as part of a near-Earth asteroid survey conducted by the Lincoln Near-Earth Asteroid Research (LINEAR). Simulations suggest there is a cumulative 1 in 1,800 chance it could hit Earth between the year 2178 and 2290. The odds of avoiding an impact are certainly in our favor right now, but it is still concerning enough that scientists wanted to learn more about the situation.
Studying the asteroid's composition will give scientists a better idea of its makeup. In a worst case scenario, this information could be invaluable in leading to a successful asteroid redirect mission to avoid a collision with Earth.
According to astrophysicist Neal deGrasse Tyson, Bennu is large enough to take out an entire city with a direct impact. Worse yet, if it hit somewhere in the ocean, it could create a tsunami that could wipe out an entire coastline.
NASA said the returned sample will also help scientists better understand planet formation and the origin of the solar system. It is believed that Bennu has been around for at least 4.5 billion years, and may have broken off from a much larger asteroid up to two billion year ago.
OSIRIS isn't done yet. NASA last year announced the mission has been extended, and that its next target will be an asteroid named 99942 Apophis.