Historic Touchdown: NASA’s OSIRIS-REx Capsule Containing Asteroid Bennu Sample Has Landed

OSIRIS-REx Sample Return Recovery Training

This image shows recovery teams participating in field rehearsals in preparation for the retrieval of the sample return capsule from NASA’s OSIRIS-REx mission on August 29, 2023, at the Department of Defense’s Utah Test and Training Range. The sample was collected from the asteroid Bennu in October 2020 by NASA’s OSIRIS-REx spacecraft and has just landed on Earth. Credit: NASA/Keegan Barber

NASA’s OSIRIS-REx capsule has safely returned asteroid Bennu samples to Earth, landing in Utah after a controlled descent.

The U.S. has, for the first time, delivered rocks and dust from an asteroid to Earth. NASA’s OSIRIS-REx sample capsule, carrying a sample of asteroid Bennu, touched down on the Department of Defense’s Utah Test and Training Range at 10:52 a.m. EDT (8:52 a.m. MDT).

Radar data from the Utah Testing and Training Range confirmed that the capsule entered Earth’s atmosphere as planned at 10:42 a.m. EDT (8:42 a.m. MDT) off the coast of California.

The drogue parachute, the smaller of the two parachutes onboard the capsule, opened after atmospheric entry to help with stability and later separated from the capsule. The main parachute deployed at 10:47 a.m. EDT (8:47 p.m. EDT). It slowed the capsule down from hypersonic speed to about 11 mph by the time it touched the ground.

OSIRIS-REx: Touching the Stars to Unearth Secrets of Our Origins

Unveiling the mysteries of the universe often requires a journey beyond our pale blue dot. Enter the OSIRIS-REx mission, NASA’s audacious endeavor to reach out and touch an ancient relic of our solar system.

Origins, Spectral Interpretation, Resource Identification, Security, Regolith Explorer, or OSIRIS-REx for short, was not just a mouthful of a name but a monumental mission with multiple objectives. Launched in September 2016, its primary aim was to rendezvous with Bennu, a near-Earth asteroid.

But why Bennu?

Believed to be a carbon-rich body holding remnants from our solar system’s birth, Bennu promises clues about the building blocks of life, the origins of organic molecules, and the primordial processes that paved the way for life on Earth.

OSIRIS-REx’s journey wasn’t just a meet-and-greet. The spacecraft was tasked to survey Bennu, map its terrain in fine detail, and then, in an interstellar pirouette, reach out its robotic arm to collect samples. This ‘high-five’ with Bennu, known as the Touch-And-Go (TAG) maneuver, was a significant highlight, with the spacecraft briefly making contact with the asteroid’s surface to gather precious regolith (rock and dust).

However, space missions aren’t devoid of challenges. Bennu turned out to be a boulder-strewn surprise, with a rugged landscape making the TAG operation even more precarious. But, against the odds, in October 2020, OSIRIS-REx successfully collected its sample.

The journey culminated with the sample’s return to Earth just minutes ago, which will allow scientists a hands-on examination of material untouched for billions of years. Beyond its scientific objectives, OSIRIS-REx offers insights into asteroid dynamics, which might prove crucial in future planetary defense strategies against potential asteroid impacts.

In essence, the OSIRIS-REx mission is more than just a space endeavor; it’s a bridge to our past, an insight into our cosmic neighborhood, and a beacon for future explorations.

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