It’s seven years since NASA launched the OSIRIS-REx mission from Cape Canaveral in Florida, and in just a few weeks’ time all the hard work will culminate in a special delivery to Earth in the form of samples from asteroid Bennu collected by NASA’s spacecraft in 2020.
“We have a primordial piece of our solar system headed back to Earth where many generations of researchers can unlock its secrets,” Thomas Zurbuchen, NASA’s associate administrator for science, said on the agency’s website.
To get the word out about the September 24 return of the asteroid samples, NASA recently posted a trailer (t0p) featuring footage from the mission, including the incredible moment when the spacecraft landed on Bennu as the rock sped through space at 63,000 mph, more than 200 million miles from Earth.
When the spacecraft carrying the samples gets close to Earth later this month, it will release a capsule containing the samples gathered from Bennu. In the final stage of the epic journey, the capsule will then deploy a parachute and float down to the Department of Defense’s Utah Test and Training Range, where the OSIRIS-REx team will be waiting to collect it.
A report on NASA’s website described how mission team members recently simulated the procedures that they’ll soon be following for real, including navigating the spacecraft to Earth, instructing it to release the capsule carrying the asteroid sample, monitoring the capsule as it hurtles through the atmosphere, retrieving it quickly from the ground to prevent contamination from the environment, and finally, transporting it by helicopter to a temporary clean room.
Nicola Fox, associate administrator of NASA’s Science Mission Directorate, said that pristine material from asteroid Bennu “will help shed light on the formation of our solar system 4.5 billion years ago, and perhaps even on how life on Earth began.”
While returning an asteroid sample will be a first for NASA, the feat has been achieved twice before by two Japanese missions that delivered samples from different asteroids in 2010 and 2020, respectively.