Most Americans have grown weary of politics and COVID-19 this year, so it was nice to have some news last week that rose to a higher level — actually hundreds of millions of miles. A spacecraft designed at the University of Arizona apparently grabbed a sample from an asteroid after circling it for nearly two years.
The U.S. for the first time is attempting to bring asteroid samples back to Earth, something that has been done by Japan, but that was smaller samples. The asteroid Bennu is taller than the Empire State Building and dates from the formation of our solar system. It passes Earth every six years and has a very tiny chance of hitting us late in the next century.
Scientists believe the sample could provide clues to the formation of life on Earth. They say the sample size was large and are attempting to stow it away. Osiris-Rex is scheduled to head for Earth in March and return in 2023.
The $800 million Osiris-Rex NASA mission started in 2016. When the spacecraft arrived two years later, scientists were surprised to find big rocks instead of just sand and small pebbles. That meant designing a tighter approach point in the middle of the pandemic, which was difficult. Time was allowed for another sample try in January.
Manned space flight once was a proud achievement of the United States, but it has been given less importance, although there has been cooperation with other nations and private participation. Unmanned space missions have done much, however, and often are more practical. Research in space does not provide the immediate impact of what often happens on the ground, but it is important.
UA has played a major role in space, and the university is considered to be at the forefront of optical sciences. Leading the Osiris-Rex mission is something the UA and Arizona in general can be proud of. We hope the results of the mission are far-reaching, in more ways than one.