NASA’s OSIRIS-REx spacecraft is returning to Earth with a sample it collected from the rocky surface of asteroid Bennu.
When its sample capsule parachutes down into the Utah desert on Sept. 24 2023, OSIRIS-REx will become the United States’ first-ever mission to return an asteroid sample to Earth.
OSIRIS-REx has been 7 years in Space on its mission.
The next thing for the team is the successful recovery of the sample and studying what it can tell us.
Asteroids are the ancient materials left over from the original era of planet formation and may contain molecular precursors to life. Scientists have learned a great deal from studying asteroid fragments that have naturally reached the ground as meteorites. But to understand whether asteroids played a role in delivering these compounds to Earth’s surface over 4 billion years ago, scientists need a pristine sample from space, free from terrestrial contaminants.
On Sept. 24, as the OSIRIS-REx spacecraft flies by Earth, it will release its sample return capsule, thereby ending its primary mission. The capsule, which is estimated to hold about a cup of Bennu’s material – 8.8 ounces +/- 3.6 ounces (250 grams +/- 101 grams) to be precise – will land within a 37-mile by 9-mile ellipse (59 km by 15 km) within Department of Defense property that is part of the Utah Test and Training Range and Dugway Proving Grounds.
OSIRIS-REx team members from NASA Goddard, KinetX, Lockheed Martin, and NASA’s Langley Research Center in Hampton, Virginia, are using computer models to test navigation plans in various weather, solar activity, and space debris scenarios to ensure that when the capsule enters Earth’s atmosphere at 10:41 a.m. ET (8:41 a.m. MT), it will touch down inside the targeted area 13 minutes later.
Recovery crews are responsible for securing the sample return capsule’s landing site and helicoptering it to a portable clean room located at the range. Additionally, crews will collect soil and air samples all around the landing capsule. These samples will help identify if any minute contaminants contacted the asteroid sample.
Once the capsule is inside the building with the portable clean room, members of the team will remove the heat shield, back shell, and other components to prepare the sample canister for transport to Houston.
The return to Earth of samples from asteroid Bennu will be the culmination of a more than 12-year effort by NASA and its mission partners but marks the beginning of a new phase of discovery as scientists from around the world will turn their attention to the analysis of this unique and precious material dating from the early formation of our solar system.
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