The parts of an asteroid, present in deep space, have safely landed on Earth. NASA‘s OSIRIS-REx probe collected and delivered samples from the asteroid Bennu to our planet. The operation took place at the Dugway Proving Ground in the Utah desert. NASA and U.S. Air Force teams successfully retrieved the space capsule with samples taken by OSIRIS-REx in 2020.
OSIRIS-REx traveled over 6.2 billion kilometers to reach Bennu and then return home. At approximately 101,000 kilometers from Earth, it released its valuable cargo. The capsule contains about 250 grams of rocks and other material from Bennu. This material could help answer some of scientists’ burning questions. How did life originate on Earth? How did the Solar System come into existence?
“Touchdown for science!” said Jim Garvin, Chief Scientist at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center. “For the first time, we’ve brought home this type of object. It’s truly monumental, and we’re all heaving a big sigh of relief”. OSIRIS-REx capsule reached speeds of 43,450 kilometers per hour, and its heat shield experienced temperatures of 2,900 degrees Celsius while passing through Earth’s atmosphere.
Descent from the Edge to the Desert Sands took less than 10 minutes in total, concluding a 6-billion-kilometer journey. The $1 billion OSIRIS-REx mission, launched in 2016, arrived at Bennu in 2018.
Plunge into the Atmosphere
Once on the ground, the capsule and the surrounding area were examined to ensure it was safe for the team members and recovery personnel. An initial examination found that the capsule was intact and had not suffered any damage during landing.
The OSIRIS-REx capsule with samples from the Bennu asteroid was attached to a helicopter via a cable and transported to a temporary cleanroom set up at the Dugway Proving Ground. Once secured, the capsule was opened, and the container inside, holding the precious cargo, will be prepared for transport once again.
The material will subsequently be loaded onto an aircraft and transported by air to NASA’s Johnson Space Center in Houston, where a newly constructed facility, the Astromaterials Research and Exploration Science (ARES) division of the agency, awaits it.
“Congratulations to the entire OSIRIS-REx team. You did it!” said NASA Administrator Bill Nelson in a video statement. “This mission shows that NASA does great things. Things that inspire us, things that unite us, things that prove that nothing is beyond our reach”. The sample will be divided among various scientific institutions and space agencies worldwide.
NASA will retain 70% of the sample at JSC, where it will be analyzed for years to come. Another 25% will be shared among over 200 scientists at 35 different facilities. 4% will be given to the Canadian Space Agency (CSA), and another 0.5% to the Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency (JAXA).
OSIRIS-REx is not the first probe to collect an asteroid sample. Japanese agency JAXA has completed missions of this kind. Hayabusa 1 collected materials from the Itokawa asteroid and returned them in 2010. Hayabusa 2 returned samples from the Ryugu asteroid in 2020.
Challenges During the Mission
The successful landing and recovery of samples from the Bennu asteroid mark the end of a seven-year mission. When the spacecraft arrived at Bennu in 2018, it found an asteroid that looked more like a pile of gravel than a solid rock. Scientists involved in the mission had to rethink the plan for the probe’s landing.
This aspect required reprogramming the spacecraft to land in an area less than a quarter of the size of the originally planned landing site. But the OSIRIS-REx team did it. Dante Lauretta, the principal investigator of the OSIRIS-REx mission, stated during a media briefing on September 22 that the team consistently demonstrated problem-solving capability. “We’ve always taken a deliberate, careful, and cautious approach” Lauretta said. “And I think that’s why this mission has been so successful up to now”.