Successful Return of Historic OSIRIS-REx Asteroid Samples to Earth

On September 24, NASA’s historic OSIRIS-REx mission successfully returned samples from the asteroid 101955 Bennu after a seven-year journey through space. This marks the first American mission to bring back samples from an asteroid. The sample return capsule (SRC) landed within a designated area at the Utah Test and Training Range and Dugway Proving Ground in Utah.

The OSIRIS-REx mission, which launched in 2016, involved flying past Earth, rendezvousing with Bennu, orbiting the asteroid, extensively imaging and mapping its surface, collecting a sample, and returning to Earth. As the SRC re-entered Earth’s atmosphere, OSIRIS-REx performed a flyby and began a new mission called OSIRIS-APEX to study another asteroid called Apophis.

Bennu is considered a time capsule from the early days of our Solar System. Classified as a B-type carbonaceous near-Earth asteroid, its surface is dark and has undergone minimal geological changes over time. The presence of carbonaceous material on Bennu’s surface makes it a valuable source for studying organic molecules necessary for life.

The process of safely returning and recovering the SRC was challenging and required precise planning. Lessons learned from previous successful missions, such as the Japanese Aerospace Exploration Agency’s Hayabusa missions, aided the OSIRIS-REx team in executing the landing operations.

In the weeks leading up to the landing, OSIRIS-REx performed trajectory correction maneuvers to ensure a successful return. Weather conditions were closely monitored using high-altitude weather balloons to provide accurate forecasts for ground personnel involved in the retrieval of the SRC. Although these conditions did not affect the landing, teams were prepared for various scenarios.

At the designated time, OSIRIS-REx released the SRC and performed a deflection maneuver to avoid its collision with Earth. The SRC entered Earth’s atmosphere at high speed, experiencing intense reentry heating. A drogue chute was deployed to stabilize its descent, followed by the main chute to slow it down further. Although the SRC landed slightly off course, it was visually tracked by Air Force and NASA tracking cameras.

Recovery helicopters quickly located the SRC and transported it to a clean room at Dugway Proving Ground. The next steps involve disassembling the SRC, removing the asteroid sample, and preparing it for transport to Houston. The samples will be analyzed, categorized, and distributed to scientific institutions worldwide to further our understanding of Bennu and the Solar System.

As scientists analyze the samples and collaborate with other missions and agencies, they will publish their findings to advance our knowledge of asteroids and our planet. This historic achievement by the OSIRIS-REx mission brings us closer to unraveling the mysteries of our Solar System.