NASA’s OSIRIS-REx mission achieved success by safely returning a capsule with asteroid Bennu samples to Earth, paving the way for critical scientific research on planetary formation and life’s origins.
After years of anticipation and hard work by NASA’s OSIRIS-REx (Origins, Spectral Interpretation, Resource Identification and Security – Regolith Explorer) team, a capsule of rocks and dust collected from asteroid Bennu finally is on Earth. It landed at 8:52 a.m. MDT (10:52 a.m. EDT) on Sunday, in a targeted area of the Department of Defense’s Utah Test and Training Range near Salt Lake City.
Within an hour and a half, the capsule was transported by helicopter to a temporary clean room set up in a hangar on the training range, where it now is connected to a continuous flow of nitrogen.
Getting the sample under a “nitrogen purge,” as scientists call it, was one of the OSIRIS-REx team’s most critical tasks today. Nitrogen is a gas that doesn’t interact with most other chemicals, and a continuous flow of it into the sample container inside the capsule will keep out earthly contaminants to leave the sample pure for scientific analyses.
The returned samples collected from Bennu will help scientists worldwide make discoveries to better understand planet formation and the origin of organics and water that led to life on Earth, as well as benefit all of humanity by learning more about potentially hazardous asteroids.
“Congratulations to the OSIRIS-REx team on a picture-perfect mission – the first American asteroid sample return in history – which will deepen our understanding of the origin of our solar system and its formation. Not to mention, Bennu is a potentially hazardous asteroid, and what we learn from the sample will help us better understand the types of asteroids that could come our way,” said NASA Administrator Bill Nelson. “With OSIRIS-REx, Psyche launch in a couple of weeks, DART’s one-year anniversary, and Lucy’s first asteroid approach in November, Asteroid Autumn is in full swing. These missions prove once again that NASA does big things. Things that inspire us and unite us. Things that show nothing is beyond our reach when we work together.”
The Bennu sample – an estimated 8.8 ounces, or 250 grams – will be transported in its unopened canister by aircraft to NASA’s Johnson Space Center in Houston on Monday, September 25. Curation scientists there will disassemble the canister, extract and weigh the sample, create an inventory of the rocks and dust, and, over time, distribute pieces of Bennu to scientists worldwide.
Today’s delivery of an asteroid sample – a first for the U.S. – went according to plan thanks to the massive effort of hundreds of people who remotely directed the spacecraft’s journey since it launched on September 8, 2016. The team then guided it to arrival at Bennu on December 3, 2018, through the search for a safe sample-collection site between 2019 and 2020, sample collection on October 20, 2020, and during the return trip home starting on May 10, 2021.
“Today marks an extraordinary milestone not just for the OSIRIS-REx team but for science as a whole,” said Dante Lauretta, principal investigator for OSIRIS-REx at the University of Arizona, Tucson. “Successfully delivering samples from Bennu to Earth is a triumph of collaborative ingenuity and a testament to what we can accomplish when we unite with a common purpose. But let’s not forget – while this may feel like the end of an incredible chapter, it’s truly just the beginning of another. We now have the unprecedented opportunity to analyze these samples and delve deeper into the secrets of our solar system.”
After traveling billions of miles to Bennu and back, the OSIRIS-REx spacecraft released its sample capsule toward Earth’s atmosphere at 6:42 a.m. EDT (4:42 a.m. MDT). The spacecraft was 63,000 miles (102,000 kilometers) from Earth’s surface at the time – about one-third the distance from Earth to the Moon.
Traveling at 27,650 mph (44,500 kph), the capsule pierced the atmosphere at 10:42 a.m. EDT (8:42 a.m. MDT), off the coast of California at an altitude of about 83 miles (133 kilometers). Within 10 minutes, it landed on the military range. Along the way, two parachutes successfully deployed to stabilize and slow the capsule down to a gentle 11 mph (18 kph) at touchdown.
“The whole team had butterflies today, but that’s the focused anticipation of a critical event by a well-prepared team,” said Rich Burns, project manager for OSIRIS-REx at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Maryland. “For us, this was the World Series, ninth inning, bases-loaded moment, and this team knocked it out of the park.”
Radar, infrared, and optical instruments in the air and on the ground tracked the capsule to its landing coordinates inside a 36-mile by 8.5-mile (58-kilometer by 14-kilometer) area on the range. Within several minutes, the recovery team was dispatched to the capsule’s location to inspect and retrieve it. The team found the capsule in good shape at 9:07 a.m. MDT (11:07 a.m. EDT) and then determined it was safe to approach. Within 70 minutes, they wrapped it up for safe transport to a temporary clean room on the range, where it remains under continuous supervision and a nitrogen purge.
NASA Goddard provides overall mission management, systems engineering, and the safety and mission assurance for OSIRIS-REx. The University of Arizona, Tucson leads the science team and the mission’s science observation planning and data processing. Lockheed Martin Space in Littleton, Colorado, built the spacecraft and provides flight operations. Goddard and KinetX Aerospace are responsible for navigating the OSIRIS-REx spacecraft. Curation for OSIRIS-REx, including processing the sample when it arrives on Earth, will take place at NASA Johnson. International partnerships on this mission include the OSIRIS-REx Laser Altimeter instrument from CSA (the Canadian Space Agency) and asteroid sample science collaboration with JAXA’s (the Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency) Hayabusa2 mission. OSIRIS-REx is the third mission in NASA’s New Frontiers Program, managed by NASA’s Marshall Space Flight Center in Huntsville, Alabama, for the agency’s Science Mission Directorate in Washington.