OSIRIS-REx Provides Initial Glimpse of Asteroid Sample Return

On September 24th, NASA’s OSIRIS-REx spacecraft will make history as it drops off a sample from the asteroid Bennu, marking the first time a spacecraft has returned to Earth with a sample from an asteroid. This remarkable achievement has sparked excitement among scientists and space enthusiasts alike, as it provides a unique opportunity to study an asteroid that is hundreds-of-millions, if not billions, of years old.

The image of OSIRIS-REx on its way home was captured by ESA’s Optical Ground Station (OGS) telescope in Tenerife on September 16th. At that time, the spacecraft was approximately 4.66 million kilometers away from Earth. The image is a combination of 90 individual images, each taken with a 36-second exposure. By accounting for the spacecraft’s motion, the background stars appear curved and warped, creating a mesmerizing visual effect.

Originally built to observe space debris and test laser communication technologies, ESA’s OGS telescope has expanded its capabilities to include surveys and follow-up observations of near-Earth asteroids, as well as night-time astronomy observations. In fact, the telescope has even discovered dozens of minor planets. For this particular observation, ESA’s Near-Earth Object Coordination Centre (NEOCC) took charge, directing the telescope towards OSIRIS-REx.

The NEOCC, part of ESA’s Planetary Defense Office, plays an important role in monitoring and assessing the risk posed by asteroids. Its experts scan the skies for potentially hazardous space rocks, calculate their orbits, and evaluate the likelihood of impact. In a way, the NEOCC acts as Europe’s “asteroid sorting hat,” ensuring the safety of our planet by identifying and tracking risky asteroids.

As OSIRIS-REx prepares to return to Earth and deliver its precious sample, scientists eagerly await the opportunity to study the asteroid Apophis. This once rather scary asteroid, named after the Egyptian god of chaos, has drawn attention due to its close approach to Earth in 2029. By studying Apophis, researchers hope to gain valuable insights into the formation and evolution of asteroids, as well as their potential threat to our planet.

While we celebrate the success of OSIRIS-REx and look forward to the safe return of the asteroid sample, ESA’s Hera mission is already on the horizon. Scheduled to launch next year, Hera will examine the first test of asteroid deflection, making it the first mission to rendezvous with a binary asteroid system. This groundbreaking mission holds the promise of advancing our understanding of asteroid dynamics and potentially providing strategies for mitigating the threat of future asteroid impacts.

To wrap it up, the image of OSIRIS-REx on its way home marks a significant milestone in space exploration. This spacecraft, which is both a spacecraft and an asteroid in itself, represents our ability to reach out into the cosmos and bring back pieces of ancient history. The success of OSIRIS-REx paves the way for future missions and discoveries that will further our understanding of asteroids and their impact on our planet.