OSIRIS-REx successfully delivers NASA's first asteroid sample

Molto Bennu

NASA's first asteroid sample return mission delivered on Sunday, when the OSIRIS-REx capsule touched down in the Department of Defense's Utah Test and Training Range near Salt Lake City.

OSIRIS-REx – full name Origins, Spectral Interpretation, Resource Identification, Security, Regolith Explorer – flew by the Earth on Sunday and released the sample-carrying capsule from a distance of around 63,000 miles (102,000km).

The capsule plummeted through space for four hours and entered the atmosphere at a speed of around 27,650 miles per hour (44,500km/h) over California. Dual parachutes helped slow it to 11mph (18km/h) before it reached terra firma.


Inspection of OSIRIS-REx capsule in Utah dessert, photo courtesy of NASA – Click to enlarge

The spacecraft carried a sample from a 4.5 billion year old asteroid named Bennu.

Launching in 2016, it travelled for two years to reach Bennu, approximately 200 million miles (322 million kilometers) away from Earth. It then spent two more years studying the asteroid's surface to identify optimal landing and sample collection points.

In 2020, OSIRIS_REx briefly touched down on Bennu and nabbed a sample plus a little extra material. Unfortunately, the sample-collection device jammed and a bit of the material leaked.

But all's well that ends well. NASA had intended to collect between 60 grams and 1 kilogram of asteroid dirt and it looks like it retrieved around 250 grams of Bennu-rock – so, job well done.

An hour and a half after the sample landed back on Earth it was picked up by helicopter and taken to a Utah-based clean room. In about a day it will be sent to Johnson Space Center in Houston, Texas for opening, curation and scientific analysis.

"When you have a larger sample, you get a more representative sampling of this body and what's in it and what it looks like compared to meteorites that we have on Earth. And also, just having more sample means that that sample's going to be more valuable longer," said Christopher Snead, advanced small particles lead in Johnson's Astromaterials Acquisition and Curation Office on Saturday.

Snead explained that research on the samples will continue for decades – and that some of the instruments that will help make sense of the material don't exist yet.

"The more you have, and the more pristine you keep that in your curation facility, the longer they are scientifically interesting and viable," enthused Snead. He also explained this specimen was the largest US celestial sample return since the Apollo era.

"Bennu is a carbonaceous asteroid," added Maritza Montoya, small particles processor and coworker of Snead. "It's something that has the organic building blocks, and it could potentially have these organic building blocks that started life here on Earth as well."

Scientists believe the sample will reveal more about how our solar system and planets evolved. The mission is also expected to teach humans about potentially dangerous asteroids – like Bennu – in case they ever make their way towards Earth.

But first, it will undergo a “nitrogen purge” in the Utah clean room.

“Nitrogen is a gas that doesn’t interact with most other chemicals, and a continuous flow of it into the sample container inside the capsule will keep out earthly contaminants to leave the sample pure for scientific analyses,” explained NASA.

“Congratulations to the OSIRIS-REx team on a picture-perfect mission – the first American asteroid sample return in history – which will deepen our understanding of the origin of our solar system and its formation,” said NASA Administrator Bill Nelson.

Nelson cited other recent asteroid related NASA missions, including Psyche, DART and Lucy, before declaring that “Asteroid Autumn is in full swing.”

And by full swing, we mean full philatelic swing: the US Postal Service has celebrated the sample’s landing with a commemorative stamp. ®

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