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Curtin ready to analyse rare asteroid rocks from epic NASA mission

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Image for Curtin ready to analyse rare asteroid rocks from epic NASA mission

Curtin University researchers are standing by to be among the first in the world to analyse precious asteroid samples due to land on Earth via NASA’s historic OSIRIS-REx mission, which could unlock some of the biggest mysteries of the Universe.

After a seven-year mission to asteroid Bennu and back, the spacecraft will hurtle through Earth’s atmosphere at speeds of up to 45,000 km/h protected by a heat shield, before deploying parachutes to safely slow down to around 16 km/h as it lands on September 24. But for Curtin researchers, the most thrilling part is yet to come.

Once the asteroid sample-return capsule has safely touched down, a Curtin team of six scientists, as members of the OSIRIS-REx science team, will use sophisticated instruments to decipher these samples and gain invaluable insights into the origins of our solar system and life itself.

Associate Professor Nick Timms, from Curtin’s School of Earth and Planetary Sciences (EPS) said OSIRIS-REx is expected to bring back about 60 grams of material, which will reveal insights into the molecular precursors to the very origin of life.

“It may not sound like much, but 60 grams is so much more than many previous asteroid missions. Bennu is a lumpy C-group asteroid, a carbonaceous, and volatile-rich group that has been relatively untouched since it was formed. This means we will effectively have a window to look back to the beginning of the solar system itself,” Associate Professor Timms said.

“These samples are some of the most pristine rocks available. Unlike natural meteor falls that can quickly become contaminated by our atmosphere, water and biota, these rocks are unblemished. So, with Bennu we will be analysing unspoilt samples of the oldest objects in the solar system.

“We’ll be able to tell a huge amount about what happened when the solar system was nothing more than dust and gas, and the processes that brought planets together and created the ingredients for life on Earth.”

Professor Fred Jourdan also from EPS and director of the Western Australian Argon Isotope Facility said the first wave of samples will consist of 5 milligrams of material that will be shipped directly to his laboratory at the end of October.

“We will look at them with a range of state-of-the-art instruments hosted in the John de Laeter Research Centre,” Professor Jourdan said.

“Bennu is a rubble pile asteroid, which means that it is entirely made up of fragments ranging from boulders to dust that were ejected during the destruction of a much larger parent asteroid. I’m very excited to apply my own argon-argon dating technique to see when this happened!”

Director of Curtin’s Space Science Technology Centre, John Curtin Distinguished Professor Phil Bland, said the Curtin team is at the forefront of sample analysis, with strengths in determining the age of small samples, learning the impact history and discovering chemical composition using a cutting edge ‘atom probe’.

“Curtin researchers have been part of numerous sample return missions, and their expertise, coupled with state-of-the-art instrumentation in our John de Laeter Centre, ensures a winning combination for unlocking the mysteries of the Universe,” John Curtin Distinguished Professor Bland said.

“This mission’s significance lies in its enduring nature. OSIRIS-REx didn’t just go to an asteroid or planet, do its work there and come back – it was actually a sample return mission, where material can be analysed for decades, offering continuous revelations about our cosmic origins.

“Just as we are still learning things from the samples the Apollo astronauts brought back, more than 50 years ago, so too we will be able to uncover the secrets of Bennu for decades to come.”

The team anticipates the first wave of results during the first half of 2024.

The full Curtin team includes:

  • John Curtin Distinguished Professor Phil Bland (Space Science and Technology Centre)
  • Professor Fred Jourdan (School of Earth and Planetary Sciences)
  • Associate Professor Nick Timms (School of Earth and Planetary Sciences)
  • Professor Steven Reddy (School of Earth and Planetary Sciences)
  • Associate Professor William Rickard (John de Laeter Centre)
  • Dr David Saxey (John de Laeter Centre)
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