NASA is on the verge of concluding its seven-year-long OSIRIS-REx mission, a crucial step towards comprehending and potentially mitigating the threat of a catastrophic collision between Earth and the near-Earth asteroid Bennu.
Bennu, initially discovered in 1999, has drawn NASA’s attention due to its substantial size, measuring approximately one-third the width of New York’s Empire State Building. Experts warn that an impact from Bennu could unleash energy equivalent to 22 atomic bombs.
In October 2020, a milestone was reached when OSIRIS-REx successfully gathered a sample weighing around 250 grams, the largest ever collected from space. This Sunday, a capsule carrying this precious Bennu sample will be released from the spacecraft, hurtling through Earth’s atmosphere at an astounding speed of 28,000 mph. Enduring temperatures twice as scorching as lava, the capsule will eventually deploy a parachute over Utah’s Great Salt Lake Desert.
Beyond its immediate threat mitigation implications, the Bennu sample holds immense scientific value. It promises insights into the ancient processes that shaped our solar system 4.5 billion years ago. According to Nicola Fox, an associate administrator of NASA’s Science Mission Directorate, this material could unveil the early stages of the solar system’s development and potentially shed light on the genesis of life on Earth.
Notably, Bennu’s name was bestowed in 2013 through a naming competition won by a nine-year-old North Carolina resident inspired by an ancient Egyptian deity.
For those concerned about the possibility of a Bennu-Earth collision, NASA offers reassurance. The space agency’s calculations estimate the odds of such an event occurring as 1 in 2700, with the most critical timeframe being September 24, 2182.
While the threat remains, it is a relatively remote possibility for the foreseeable future.