The OSIRIS-REx Asteroid Sample Return Mission of NASA. Credit: NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center
The OSIRIS-REx spacecraft of NASA is returning to Earth with a sample it collected from the rocky surface of asteroid Bennu. On September 24, OSIRIS-REx will be the first US mission to return an asteroid sample to Earth.
This pioneering mission is about to face one of its greatest challenges yet, which is to safely deliver the asteroid sample to Earth while protecting it from heat, vibrations, and other earthly contaminants.
"Our team will be racing against the clock to retrieve the sample capsule and get it safely back to life in a temporary clean room," said Mike Moreau, NASA's deputy project manager in Greenbelt, Maryland.
The OSIRIS-REx spacecraft of NASA is returning to Earth with a sample it collected from the rocky surface of asteroid Bennu on September 24. OSIRIS-REx will be the first mission in the United States to return an asteroid sample to Earth.
So, the OSIRIS-REx team will develop and refine the steps required to recover the sample in Utah and send it to a new lab in Houston, where scientists will unpack it, send it around the globe for analysis, and preserve the rest for future generations.
NASA Goddard and KinetX Aerospace are studying the maneuverability that will bring the spacecraft close to Earth. This summer, crews in Colorado and Utah will learn how to safely recover the sample capsule. At Johnson Space Center, the curation crew is preparing to perform the experiments they will perform with the sample material once it has been received.
On September 24, 2023, NASA's OSIRIS-REx spacecraft will parachute down into the Utah desert. Credit: NASA
"The OSIRIS-REx team has already accomplished remarkable feats in characterizing and sampling asteroid Bennu," said Dante Lauretta, the University of Arizona, Tucson's principal investigator. "These accomplishments are the direct result of the hard work and dedication we put into this final stage of the flight."
Scientists need a clean sample from space to study if asteroids played a role in bringing these compounds to Earth's surface over four billion years ago.
As meteorites, the most fragile rocks discovered on Bennu likely would not have survived passage through Earth's atmosphere as meteorites. "Both can significantly alter meteorites when they land on the ground and muddle the narrative told by the sample's chemistry and mineralogy."
Members of NASA's OSIRIS-REx curation team practice with a mock glove box at the agency's Johnson Space Center in Houston. They are also responsible for storing and distributing the sample to scientists around the world. Most of the sample will be preserved for future generations.
The OSIRIS-REx spacecraft will release its sample return capsule on September 24, ending its primary mission, which is expected to include about a cup of Bennu's material – 8 ounces + 3.6 ounces (250 grams + 101 grams) – on a 37-mile by 9-mile ellipse (59 km by 15 km) located on the Utah Test and Training Range and Dugway Proving Grounds.
OSIRIS-REx team members from NASA Goddard, KinetX, and NASA's Langley Research Center in Hampton, Virginia, are testing navigation plans in various weather, solar activity, and space debris scenarios to ensure that the capsule arrives in the Earth's atmosphere 13 minutes later.
Recovery crews will take soil and air samples throughout the landing capsule to determine whether any minute contaminants entered the sample.
Members of the team will remove the heat shield, the back shell, and other items before preparing the sample canister for transportation to Houston once it has been inside the building with the portable clean room.
The return of asteroid Bennu samples will be the culmination of a more than 12-year effort by NASA and its mission partners, but it also marks the start of a new phase of discovery as scientists from across the world look to the beginning of our solar system.
The Goddard Space Flight Center at NASA's Johnson Space Center in Houston manages OSIRIS-REx's science team, science observation planning, and mission assurance. The University of Arizona, Tucson, led by principal investigator Dante Lauretta, was the architect of the spacecraft, and will conduct research upon Earth's arrival.