Canadian Space Agency Aids Historic Asteroid Bennu Sample Return Mission


In a mere span of ten days, the world is set to receive samples taken from the asteroid Bennu, a momentous accomplishment that was made possible due to significant support from Canada.

This landmark achievement was discussed in depth by scientists from the Canadian Space Agency (CSA) on a recent weekday. They elaborated on how an intricate instrument, created by Canadian experts, facilitated the OSIRIS-REx spacecraft in harvesting these highly awaited samples. The experts also revealed how Canada will continue making important contributions to analysing the samples as well as to the spacecraft’s continued voyage.

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The OSIRIS-REx spacecraft, after seven long years traversing the cosmos, is due to swing by Earth on September 24th, releasing its sample capsule that is anticipated to land snugly within the Utah desert. Contained within the capsule are around 250 grams of samples taken directly from the asteroid Bennu. However, the precise quantity won’t be discernible until the capsule’s opening.

The OSIRIS-REx Laser Altimeter, supplied by the CSA for this mission, enabled the spacecraft to meticulously construct a comprehensive 3D mapping of the asteroid. John Moores, Science Advisor to the President of the CSA, commended the crucial role of this device, highlighting how it assisted the team in selecting the ideal location from where the sample should be collected. He further emphasized the important involvement of Canadian scientists from the inception of the OSIRIS-REx mission.

Canada will become the fifth nation to receive a space-collected sample. Four per cent of the total sample will be delivered to Canada for analysis, and the country is currently developing a dedicated facility for the safe storage of these samples. NASA is set to share its initial observations on the sample’s contents by early October, potentially illuminating our understanding of the origins of the solar system.

The successful extraction of samples from Bennu, after 18 months of strategic orbiting, was only made possible due to the meticulous measurements made by the Canadian-supplied device which used lidar technology. Cameron Dickinson, a staffer at MDA Ltd., a Canadian space technology firm working in tandem with the CSA, explained how the team relied on precise distance measurements determined by laser light pulses.

The detailed mapping ultimately led the scientists to the best sample collection site on Bennu. However, the team was greeted with an unforeseen event. Bennu’s surface was far less solid than originally expected, causing the sampling device to plunge half a metre below Bennu’s exterior.

Canadian scientists are presently in the process of creating a dedicated facility to accommodate their share of the asteroid sample. The facility will host a “clean room”, ensuring that the samples remain uncontaminated by Earth particles.

Although OSIRIS-REx will be delivering the sample soon, its journey isn’t ending. It will continue its expedition towards another asteroid, Apophis, named after the Greek term for the Egyptian god of chaos.

The arrival of the Bennu samples this month marks merely the initiation. Bennu continues to present a valuable opportunity for scientists to study material dating back to the formation of our solar system, allowing them to dive deep into answering fundamental questions concerning planetary formation and evolution.