NASA’s OSIRIS-REx spacecraft is returning from asteroid Bennu with a sample, set to land on Earth on September 24. ESA’s telescope captured the spacecraft 2.90 million miles away.
Is it a spacecraft? An asteroid? Well, both. This small central speck is the first image of a spacecraft on its way home, carrying with it a sample from an asteroid hundreds-of-millions, if-not-billions-of-years old. The spacecraft is NASA’s OSIRIS-REx, the asteroid is Bennu.
On Sunday, September 24, the mission will drop its rocky sample off to fall through Earth’s atmosphere and land safely back home, before it continues on to study the once rather scary asteroid Apophis.
Spotted on September 16 by ESA’s Optical Ground Station (OGS) telescope in Tenerife, OSIRIS-REx was 2.90 million miles (4.66 million km) from Earth. This image is a combination of 90 individual images, each 36-second exposures. They have been combined in a way that takes into account the motion of the spacecraft, which is not traveling in a straight line, causing the seemingly stretched background stars to curve and warp.
ESA’s 1-meter OGS telescope was originally built to observe space debris in orbit and test laser communication technologies, but since broadened its horizons to also conduct surveys and follow-up observations of near-Earth asteroids and make night-time astronomy observations and has even discovered dozens of minor planets.
For this observation, ESA’s Near-Earth Object Coordination Centre (NEOCC) took over the reins, directing it at the returning asteroid explorer. The NEOCC, part of the Agency’s Planetary Defence Office, is a little like Europe’s asteroid sorting hat; the center and its experts are scanning the skies for risky space rocks, computing their orbits and calculating their risk of impact.
From our small but mighty Space Safety telescope, we say ‘Hello, OSIRIS-REx, good luck NASA and welcome safely to Earth, asteroid Bennu!’.
NASA’s OSIRIS-REx Mission
The OSIRIS-REx mission, which stands for Origins, Spectral Interpretation, Resource Identification, Security, Regolith Explorer, is a NASA-led endeavor aimed at studying the near-Earth asteroid Bennu. Launched on September 8, 2016, the mission’s primary goal is to bring back a sample from the asteroid to Earth. This effort is particularly significant as it allows scientists to study pristine materials from the solar system’s early history, possibly providing insights into the origins of life on Earth.
- Launch: September 8, 2016, from Cape Canaveral Air Force Station, Florida.
- Bennu Arrival: OSIRIS-REx arrived at Bennu on December 3, 2018.
- Sample Collection: On October 20, 2020, the spacecraft successfully touched down on Bennu, collecting a sample.
- Sample Return: The spacecraft is expected to deliver the sample to Earth on September 24, 2023.