$1.2 Billion and 10 Years for 121.6g of Space Dust

NASA has revealed the total mass of samples from the asteroid Bennu successfully brought back to Earth last fall. Thus, the weight of the “haul” amounts to 121.6 grams.

$1.2 Billion and 10 Years for 121.6g of Space Dust
$1.2 Billion and 10 Years for 121.6g of Space Dust

At first glance, the sample may seem quite small. Especially considering the immense efforts NASA and its partners exerted to obtain it. The Goddard Space Flight Center of the space agency collaborated with the University of Arizona and Lockheed Martin to develop the OSIRIS-REx spacecraft at a cost of $800 million. It was launched in September 2016 atop an Atlas V rocket, costing an additional $183.5 million. And as it traveled through the inner solar system and back, NASA spent an additional $200 million on mission operations. Thus, NASA invested $1.2 billion and nearly a decade to acquire morsels of asteroid dust that could fit in a can of food.

But good things come in small packages. And though this sample is small, it exceeds by 20 times the amount of asteroid material previously returned to Earth by two Japanese sample-return missions. These modest fragments hold significant value as scientists will study materials within this asteroid dust, hoping to find information about the origins of life and the conditions that existed at the dawn of our solar system.

Furthermore, the obtained sample doubles the minimum requirement for the mission – 60 grams. Therefore, OSIRIS-REx can now be definitively labeled as an unequivocal success.

In the coming weeks, some Bennu materials will be packaged and distributed for study by researchers. As part of the OSIRIS-REx mission, a cohort of over 200 scientists from around the world will investigate regolith properties, including researchers from various U.S. institutions, the Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency, and the Canadian Space Agency.

NASA intends to reserve approximately 70% of the material for future research.

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