NASA's OSIRIS-REx mission set to deliver asteroid sample to Earthcollected from the surface of asteroid Bennu. Upon touchdown in Utah on September 24, the mission will mark the United States' first-ever return of an asteroid sample to Earth.
However, the team faces a significant challenge. They must ensure that the sample, collected over seven years in space, is protected from heat, vibrations, and earthly contaminants.
The team will spend the next six months refining the recovery procedures required to transport the sample to a new lab at NASA's Johnson Space Center in Houston. The lab will unpack the sample, distribute up to 25% of it to the OSIRIS-REx science team for analysis and curate the remainder for future generations to study.
Flight dynamics engineers from NASA Goddard and KinetX Aerospace are currently reviewing the trajectory that will bring the spacecraft closer to Earth. Meanwhile, team members at Lockheed Martin are preparing a group to recover the sample capsule, and crews in Colorado and Utah will practice the steps to safely recover the capsule while preventing contamination.
Dante Lauretta, OSIRIS-REx principal investigator from the University of Arizona, Tucson, expressed his confidence in the team, stating that the mission's success is due to their extensive training and rehearsals.
Asteroids are the ancient materials left over from the original era of planet formation and may contain molecular precursors to life. Thus, scientists need a pristine sample from space, free from terrestrial contaminants, to understand whether asteroids played a role in delivering these compounds to Earth's surface over four billion years ago.
A pristine sample could also provide insights into the development of the solar system. As Dr. Jason Dworkin, OSIRIS-REx project scientist at NASA Goddard, explains:
Both water and biology can severely alter meteorites when they land on the ground and muddle the story told by the sample's chemistry and mineralogy.- Dr. Jason Dworkin, OSIRIS-REx project scientist at NASA Goddard
The sample return capsule, estimated to hold about a cup of Bennu's material (250 grams plus or minus 101 grams), will land within a designated area of Department of Defense property that is part of the Utah Test and Training Range and Dugway Proving Grounds. The team is using computer models to test navigation plans under different weather, solar activity, and space debris scenarios to ensure that the capsule enters Earth's atmosphere at 10:41 a.m. ET (8:41 a.m. MT) and touches down in the targeted area 13 minutes later.
Recovery crews are responsible for securing the sample return capsule's landing site and collecting soil and air samples to identify any minute contaminants that may have come into contact with the asteroid sample. Once inside the portable clean room, the team will remove the heat shield, back shell, and other components to prepare the sample canister for transport to Houston.
The return to Earth of samples from asteroid Bennu will be the culmination of a 12-year effort by NASA and its mission partners. It marks the beginning of a new phase of discovery as scientists from around the world will study this unique and precious material dating back to the early formation of our solar system.