Astronomy

The OSIRIS-REx Capsule Has Landed! Asteroid Samples Returned!

The OSIRIS-REx mission has just completed NASA’s first sample-return mission from a near-Earth asteroid (NEA). The samples arrived at the Utah Test and Training Range (UTTR) near Salt Lake City, where a team of engineers arrived by helicopter to retrieve the sample capsule. The samples will be curated by NASA’s Astromaterials Research and Exploration Science Directorate (ARES) and Japan’s Extraterrestrial Sample Curation Center (ESCuC). Analysis of the rocks and dust obtained from Bennu is expected to provide new insight into the formation and evolution of the Solar System.

Radar data from the UTTR confirmed that the Sample Retrieval Capsule (SRC) entered Earth’s atmosphere as planned at 10:42 AM EDT (8:42 AM MDT) off the coast of California. The capsule deployed its parachutes and touched down on the surface ten minutes later, where it was met by four helicopters and two backup ground vehicles carrying NASA and the U.S. Air Force personnel. The recovery operation (which included inspection of the SRC and surrounding environment) was the subject of a live broadcast on NASA TV and the agency’s website (recap posted below).

The coverage took place from the U.S. Air Force’s Dugway Proving Grounds in northern Utah. Dr. James B. Garvin, the Chief Scientist at NASA’s Goddard Spaceflight Center, expressed excitement during the broadcast about the successful return of the samples and the mission in general. “I’m over the asteroid!” he said. “It’s a masterpiece of engineering we have here. Just think about this. In fifty years, we’ve gone from bringing things on the Moon back with crews to all-robotic sample return for science that’s… literally beyond words. It’s sublime. So we cannot wait to see what we’re going to learn.”

This represents the culmination of the Origins, Spectral Interpretation, Resource Identification, Security, Regolith Explorer (OSIRIS-REx) mission, which rendezvoused with the carbonaceous asteroid Bennu in 2018. After two years of studying the asteroid from orbit, OSIRIS-REx began descending toward its surface on October 20th, 2020. After collecting between 400 grams and 1 kg (0.88 to 2.2 lbs), the spacecraft departed on May 10th, 2021, and began returning to Earth. During the broadest, NASA Director Bill Nelson delivered his congratulations to the OSIRIS-REx team for their efforts:

“You did it. You designed it, you built it, and you carried out a first mission to collect a sample from an asteroid. And after a two-year journey, it has touched down at the Utah Desert. It brought something extraordinary: the largest asteroid sample ever received on Earth. It’s going to help scientists investigate planet formation. It’s going to improve our understanding of asteroids that could possibly impact the Earth, and it will deepen our understanding of the origin of our Solar System and its formation. This mission proves that NASA does big things. Things that inspire us, things that unite us, things that show that nothing is beyond reach.”

By 12:37 AM EDT (9:37 AM PDT), the sample return capsule was attached to the end of a 100-foot cable and transported to a hangar at the UTTR. The SRC was then loaded onto a cart by another team, who unwrapped and cleaned it before wheeling it into a temporary clean room to remove the unopened sample canister. All the parts will packaged for transport by aircraft and flown to NASA’s Johnson Space Center tomorrow.

A team from Lockheed Martin prepare the sample return capsule from NASA’s OSIRIS-REx mission for transport on Sunday, Sept. 24th, 2023. Credit: NASA

The OSIRIS-REx mission has since continued onto the next leg of its mission, which will be to study Apophis. This NEA was previously thought to pose a potential risk to Earth – aka. a Potentially-Hazardous Asteroid (PHA) – though scientists have since indicated there’s a slight risk it might impact Earth in 2068. This mission extension was announced on April 25th, 2022, and NASA indicated it would henceforth be known as the OSIRIS-APEX (‘APophis EXplorer’) mission. The mission will rendezvous with Apophis in April 2029, when the asteroid makes an extremely close pass to Earth, then orbit the asteroid for about 18 months before retrieving a sample.

Further Reading: NASA Blogs

Matt Williams

Matt Williams is a space journalist and science communicator for Universe Today and Interesting Engineering. He's also a science fiction author, podcaster (Stories from Space), and Taekwon-Do instructor who lives on Vancouver Island with his wife and family.

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