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Harvard, MIT Students Part Of Mission To Collect Sample From Asteroid

BOSTON (CBS) - It was a mission almost a decade in the making - early Tuesday evening, an SUV-sized spacecraft called "Osiris-Rex" quickly and carefully touched the surface of an asteroid. In just 16 seconds, a small robotic arm collected samples to find out what "Bennu" really is. Scientists believe Bennu, estimated to be four and a half billion years old, could hold valuable information.

"Asteroids are the leftover pieces from how planets were formed, from how earth is formed. We're going back and we're sampling the original ingredient for life on earth by getting a sample of this asteroid Bennu," explained MIT Professor of Planetary Science Richard Binzel, who is also a co-investigator on this NASA Osiris Rex mission.

Osiris-Rex spacecraft (Image credit NASA Goddard)

The spacecraft has been orbiting Bennu for almost two years, trying to pick the perfect time to briefly touch down. A small, key imaging instrument on board has big local ties. It exists thanks to more than 80 students from MIT and Harvard.

"It's a student-built experiment built by students at MIT and Harvard: its mission is to measure the asteroid in X-ray light, which is part of the process of figuring out what the asteroid is made out of," Binzel added.

Students work on Osiris-Rex project (Image credit NASA Goddard)

The asteroid and orbiting spacecraft will be closest to Earth in March. What was collected will then be launched back; that capsule is expected to parachute into the Utah desert in September 2023.

"There's an amazing science treasure trove to be found. When we get the sample back it's going to be all so worth it," Binzel said. "I think we're sensing the triumph of a major milestone."

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