Six Seconds on an Asteroid

Big Numbers, the Big Bang, and Little Bennu

I remember staring enthralled at the projector screen in my 6th grade class in Adams Elementary School. An animated Disney educational film predicted three-stage rockets striking out for Mars by the year 2,000 A.D. I licked the tip of my pencil and did the math. I’d be forty-nine years old and I wondered if that would be too old to make the flight.

NASA may be a bit (twenty years) behind schedule, but they seem to have a plan – a very deliberate plan. For vehicles that travel distances measured in “Astronomical Units” (one AU = approximately 93 million miles), deliberate is good. On September 8, 2016, NASA launched OSIRIS-Rex to rendezvous with asteroid Bennu in 2018, sample the surface in 2020, and return the samples to Earth in 2023. Not exactly colonizing Mars, but still—an incredible journey.

OSIRIS-Rex—an acronym that must have kept NASA information officers working way overtime—stands for: Origins, Spectral Interpretation, Security-Regolith Explorer.

Why Bennu? Bennu is classified as a B-type asteroid. Its chemicals and rocks date from the very birth of our solar system and may contain the molecular precursors to the origin of life and the Earth’s oceans.

Apollo 8 Astronaut Frank Borman, described Earth as “an oasis in the vastness of space.”  He might have added: an improbable oasis. I mean what are the odds? Billions to one? An improbable oasis that orbits the right kind of star, at the right distance, with the right axial tilt, and with a moon just the right size and in just the right orbit. Not to mention the temperature – not boiling – not freezing, delicate calibrations that are infinitesimal in the vast mathematics of outer space. Earth contains all the things necessary to allow, support, and sustain life. It bears all the things absolutely necessary to nurture a species that could develop the resources and intellect to answer the questions that are central to the human experience: where did we come from? What is our destiny?

According to the Big Bang Theory, 13 billion years ago, in an undeniable act of creation – light burst into darkness and within one hundredth of a second the universe as we know it began to form. Within one second, elements such as hydrogen and helium were created, and within one-and a-half minutes the temperature of the universe cooled to 1 billion Celsius. It took 56,000 years for the universe to cool to below 9,000 degrees, and 316,000 years to cool down enough where protons and neutrons could form heavier atoms. Around 3.8 billion years ago our solar system coalesced from a cloud of interstellar dust and gas. It is all theory—a theory that OSIRIS Rex may help flesh out.

So far so good. On October 21st, OSIRIS-Rex touched down for six seconds, deployed a robotic arm, scooped up over two ounces of surface debris (regolith) and gently returned to Bennu orbit. Just last Thursday the sample was safely stowed away, allowing NASA specialists to focus on returning the spacecraft for its Earth Return Cruise sometime in March of next year. Target delivery of the Sample Return Capsule to Earth is September 2023.

There are lots of moving parts, and that’s just ORSIS-Rex. The International Space Station has orbited Earth for two decades, missions launched decades ago are still sending intelligence back to our home planet, and multiple rovers and platforms are active on Mars. Apropos Mars, in February of next year a NASA lander will set down on the red planet and deploy Perseverance rover and Ingenuity, a helicopter drone to explore the Martian sky. Perseverance will stack core samples for retrieval in July of 2026 and return to Earth.

Way back in 1977 NASA launched Voyager 1, which has long-since left our solar system and is still sending back data from over 15 billion miles (152 A.U.) as it hurls towards the star Gliese 445, 17 light-years away in the Camelopardalis Constellation.

Where did we come from? What is our destiny? Why did light suddenly burst forth more than 13 billion years ago to fill the universe with the building blocks of life? While OSIRIS-Rex may help answering the “how questions,” the “what” questions, and to a point, even the “where” questions, the “why” questions may remain beyond science.

On September 24, 2023 we hope to have the Bennu samples here on Earth for analysis and testing. In 2026, NASA plans to launch a retrieval mission to pick up the Perseverance samples on Mars and bring them back to Earth.

Disney and NASA may have failed me. It does not look like I will make it to Mars. But between OSIRIS-Rex and the Mars missions I may live to see the fingerprints of God in one or more of those rock samples.

has traveled extensively in Africa, Asia, Europe, the Caribbean and the South Seas – winning hearts and minds in and out of uniform – federal, military, and freelance.  Now working exclusively freelance, he is fluent in German and English, with survival skills in French, Haitian Creole, Russian, Standard Arabic, Swahili and Samoan.

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