Australian scientists to play a role in NASA mission carrying 4.5 billion-year-old asteroid sample
Nine Queensland scientists will get a close-up look when a NASA capsule carrying samples from a 4.5 billion-year-old asteroid comes crashing back to Earth on Monday.
The capsule, which is expected to re-enter Earth's atmosphere at 2am AEST, holds about 250 grams of rock collected in 2020 from the near-Earth asteroid Bennu by NASA's OSIRIS-REx mission.
The mission marks the first time the United States has taken a sample from an asteroid, although Japan has conducted similar missions in 2018 and 2010.
The sample will help scientists better understand how Earth and the solar system were formed.
The sample, which took just five seconds to be gathered, has spent the past two years traversing the 122-million-kilometre-long journey back to Earth.
NASA, Rocket Technologies International Australia and USQ are funding the planes that will enable scientists to obverse the capsule as it makes its descent towards the Utah desert in the US.
In a gesture of goodwill, NASA has invited University of Southern Queensland (USQ) scientist Fabian Zander and his team to help track the capsule as it re-enters the atmosphere.
The capsule is estimated to re-enter at a speed of 12 kilometres per second, with a surface temperature reaching up to 3,000 degrees Celsius.
Dr Zander said the data collected from the capsule will be vital to the future design of spacecraft.
"The big picture is really weight-savings on the capsules," he said.
"The thermal protection system on the front of the capsule is a really large fraction of the total mass, and if you can help reduce that mass while keeping it safe, you save a lot of money.
"The only way of getting real data for these entries is actually observing an actual re-entry."
Dr Zander said such missions typically come around only once in a decade.
"We're very nervous about performing well as there's a lot of challenges around this one: It's a daylight re-entry, which presents many challenges and difficulties across the board."
"We're nervous but excited."
USQ research associate Jeremy Moran will be one of the scientists on the NASA plane and has been tasked with tracking the capsule.
He said it was a dream to be working with the agency.
"Every engineer wants to work with NASA. It's still very surreal being over here, I kind of have to pinch myself," he said.
"But at the same time, you need to do a job. I can't fan girl too much, although I have definitely taken a lot of photos."
Byrenn Birch, who'll be sitting alongside Mr Moran, said the team had spent days preparing for the mission.
"We've done three flights, we've run full mission simulations, through the actual flight path at the same time, down to the second," Dr Birch said.
"We've done all the practice we can. We've gone and collected data to enable us to set our sensors and give us the best possible chance to do good science.
"It's pretty awesome but also pretty daunting at the same time, but it's cool to think that other people believe that you can pull it off."
Scientists from the Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency, the University of Stuttgart, the University of Queensland, and several other domestic US organisations will also be taking part in the mission.
We acknowledge Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples as the First Australians and Traditional Custodians of the lands where we live, learn, and work.
This service may include material from Agence France-Presse (AFP), APTN, Reuters, AAP, CNN and the BBC World Service which is copyright and cannot be reproduced.
AEST = Australian Eastern Standard Time which is 10 hours ahead of GMT (Greenwich Mean Time)


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