It’s no small thing deciding who will occupying our political offices and wield power for the next few years. But you’ll have to excuse some NASA scientists if they have bigger questions on the brain.

A team at NASA last week successfully made contact with a primordial asteroid more than 200 million miles away, as the spacecraft Osiris-Rex reached out and grabbed its surface, with any luck picking up some ancient material to bring back to Earth.

It was a moment years in the making — and an amazing achievement that could tell us more about our solar system’s greatest mysteries.

Osiris-Rex was launched from Cape Canaveral in 2016. Two years later it reached the asteroid Bennu, and since it has been orbiting the space rock looking for a good place to complete its mission.

The right spot was found, and last week the spacecraft began its 4.5-hour descent to the surface. The asteroid is only 1,670 feet across — about five football fields, or the height of the Empire State Building — so there is not enough gravity to land. Instead, the Osiris-Rex used its 11-foot arm to reach out to the surface, aiming for a spot about the size of a few parking spaces. It shot pressurized nitrogen to loosen the ground, then went in to pick up what it could.

Just under 20 minutes later — the time it takes for radio signals sent from there to reach here — scientists found out everything mechanically had worked as planned. Soon, they’ll found if they grabbed any material; if not, they’ll take another go at it.


When they get material, it’ll be a first for an American team; a Japanese spacecraft completed a similar mission in 2018.

Both the Americans and Japanese teams have the same goal: To find out more about the origins of the solar system and life on Earth.

Bennu, named after an Ancient Egyptian deity linked to the Sun and creation, was born in the asteroid belt between Mars and Jupiter about 4.5 billion years ago — within the first 10 million years of our solar system’s life.

The asteroid is full of carbon, and because it hasn’t changed much since its birth, the black, crumbly material the Osiris-Rex is there to gather contains the building blocks of our solar system — and of life on our planet.

It “tells the history of our entire Earth, of the solar system, during the last billions of years,” NASA’s science mission chief told the Associated Press.

The mission will also tell us more about Bennu’s route. Scientists put at about 1-in-2,700 the odds that the asteroid will hit Earth sometime between the years 2175 and 2199, though such an impact wouldn’t be catastrophic.

For now, however, the NASA team is focused on what the Osiris-Rex has picked up on Bennu. If successful, the spacecraft will touch down back in a Utah desert in 2023, carrying its cargo with it.

And that black dust and pebbles, from the beginning of time, may shine new light on how this all came to be.


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