NASA’s OSIRIS-REx capsule returns to earth with asteroid sample.
OSIRIS-REx Sample Capsule Safely Touches Down With NASA’s First-Ever Asteroid Sample
The NASA mission – designed, built and flown by Lockheed Martin – aims to uncover new learnings about the building blocks of life in our solar system.
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UTAH TEST AND TRAINING RANGE, Utah, Sept. 24, 2023 – Following a rapid and red-hot descent through Earth’s atmosphere, NASA’s OSIRIS-REx sample return capsule touched down in the desert at 8:52 a.m. MT today, returning NASA’s first-ever asteroid sample. The capsule is estimated to hold about a cup of material from Bennu, a carbon-rich asteroid. Scientists hope it will teach us more about the origin of organics that led to life on Earth and help us better understand planet formation.
Just prior to landing, the capsule entered the atmosphere traveling more than 27,000 mph. It then gently landed in the sands of the U.S. government’s Utah Test and Training Range.
A specialized recovery team led by Lockheed Martin – who designed, built and currently flies the mission for NASA – comprising representatives from NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center, NASA Johnson Space Center, the University of Arizona, then secured the capsule.
The returned samples collected from Bennu will help scientists worldwide make discoveries to better understand planet formation and the origin of organics and water that led to life on Earth, as well as benefit all of humanity by learning more about potentially hazardous asteroids.
“The landing was safe, recovery was a huge success, and we’re thrilled that the next phase of this mission can now begin,” said Kyle Griffin, vice president and general manager of Commercial Civil Space at Lockheed Martin. “This particular sample return is monumental – scientists are about to open a time capsule with some of the earliest history of our solar system inside.”
After approaching the capsule landing area in helicopters, the recovery team carefully searched for any hazardous material, sampled the neighboring soil, wrapped the 100-lb capsule in protective material, and attached it for transport with via helicopter to an on-site cleanroom at the range. There, the sample is being processed for shipment on a military aircraft to curation team members at NASA Johnson in Houston, Texas, who will make it available for study.
In total, about 60 people from NASA, the University of Arizona, Lockheed Martin and range personnel took part in the capsule landing and recovery efforts, plus a team of about 25 engineers operating the spacecraft from Lockheed Martin’s Mission Support Area in Denver.
“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. Not to mention, Bennu is a potentially hazardous asteroid, and what we learn from the sample will help us better understand the types of asteroids that could come our way,” said NASA Administrator Bill Nelson. “With OSIRIS-REx, Psyche launch in a couple of weeks, DART’s one year anniversary, and Lucy’s first asteroid approach in November, Asteroid Autumn is in full swing. These missions prove once again that NASA does big things. Things that inspire us and unite us. Things that show nothing is beyond our reach when we work together.”
The Bennu sample – an estimated 8.8 ounces, or 250 grams – will be transported in its unopened canister by aircraft to NASA’s Johnson Space Center in Houston on Monday, Sept. 25. Curation scientists there will disassemble the canister, extract and weigh the sample, create an inventory of the rocks and dust, and, over time, distribute pieces of Bennu to scientists worldwide.
Today’s delivery of an asteroid sample – a first for the U.S. – went according to plan thanks to the massive effort of hundreds of people who remotely directed the spacecraft’s journey since it launched on Sept. 8, 2016. The team then guided it to arrival at Bennu on Dec. 3, 2018, through the search for a safe sample-collection site between 2019 and 2020, sample collection on Oct. 20, 2020, and during the return trip home starting on May 10, 2021.
“Today marks an extraordinary milestone not just for the OSIRIS-REx team but for science as a whole,” said Dante Lauretta, principal investigator for OSIRIS-REx at the University of Arizona, Tucson. “Successfully delivering samples from Bennu to Earth is a triumph of collaborative ingenuity and a testament to what we can accomplish when we unite with a common purpose. But let’s not forget – while this may feel like the end of an incredible chapter, it’s truly just the beginning of another. We now have the unprecedented opportunity to analyze these samples and delve deeper into the secrets of our solar system.”
After traveling billions of miles to Bennu and back, the OSIRIS-REx spacecraft released its sample capsule toward Earth’s atmosphere at 6:42 a.m. EDT (4:42 a.m. MDT). The spacecraft was 63,000 miles (102,000 kilometers) from Earth’s surface at the time – about one-third the distance from Earth to the Moon.
Traveling at 27,650 mph (44,500 kph), the capsule pierced the atmosphere at 10:42 a.m. EDT (8:42 a.m. MDT), off the coast of California at an altitude of about 83 miles (133 kilometers). Within 10 minutes, it landed on the military range. Along the way, two parachutes successfully deployed to stabilize and slow the capsule down to a gentle 11 mph (18 kph) at touchdown.
“The whole team had butterflies today, but that’s the focused anticipation of a critical event by a well-prepared team,” said Rich Burns, project manager for OSIRIS-REx at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Maryland. “For us, this was the World Series, ninth inning, bases-loaded moment, and this team knocked it out of the park.”
Radar, infrared, and optical instruments in the air and on the ground tracked the capsule to its landing coordinates inside a 36-mile by 8.5-mile (58-kilometer by 14-kilometer) area on the range. Within several minutes, the recovery team was dispatched to the capsule’s location to inspect and retrieve it. The team found the capsule in good shape at 9:07 a.m. MDT (11:07 a.m. EDT) and then determined it was safe to approach. Within 70 minutes, they wrapped it up for safe transport to a temporary clean room on the range, where it remains under continuous supervision and a nitrogen purge.
Advanced Exploration Technology Testbed
The OSIRIS-REx mission pioneered key technologies relevant to the future exploration of small bodies in our solar system, beyond its immediate follow-on mission. They include:
- Specific techniques for operating in microgravity
- Autonomous guidance to the surface of a small body with Natural Feature Tracking
- Unique sample collection from an asteroid, with the Lockheed Martin-invented, reverse-vacuum Touch and Go sample Acquisition Mechanism (TAGSAM) device
Next Stop: Apophis
Following today’s successful landing and showcase of key technologies, OSIRIS-REx will now be dubbed OSIRIS-APEX and enter its extended mission phase, beginning its journey to its follow-on mission target: near-Earth asteroid Apophis.
To date, OSIRIS-REx’s major mission milestones include:
- Launching on Sept. 8, 2016, from Cape Canaveral Space Force Station.
- Arriving at Bennu on Dec. 3, 2018, where it conducted a two-year detailed survey of the asteroid.
- Extracting a sample from the asteroid by “tagging” it on Oct. 20, 2020.
- Departing the asteroid to head back to Earth on May 10, 2021.
NASA’s OSIRIS-REx, the first U.S. mission to collect a sample from an asteroid, will return to Earth on Sept. 24, 2023, with material from asteroid Bennu. When it arrives, the OSIRIS-REx spacecraft will release the sample capsule for a safe landing in the Utah desert. The pristine material from Bennu – rocks and dust collected from the asteroid’s surface in 2020 – will offer generations of scientists a window into the time when the Sun and planets were forming about 4.5 billion years ago.
NASA Goddard provides overall mission management, systems engineering, and the safety and mission assurance for OSIRIS-REx. The University of Arizona, Tucson leads the science team and the mission’s science observation planning and data processing. Lockheed Martin Space in Littleton, Colorado, built the spacecraft and provides flight operations. Goddard and KinetX Aerospace are responsible for navigating the OSIRIS-REx spacecraft. Curation for OSIRIS-REx, including processing the sample when it arrives on Earth, will take place at NASA Johnson. International partnerships on this mission include the OSIRIS-REx Laser Altimeter instrument from CSA (the Canadian Space Agency) and asteroid sample science collaboration with JAXA’s (the Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency) Hayabusa2 mission. OSIRIS-REx is the third mission in NASA’s New Frontiers Program, managed by NASA’s Marshall Space Flight Center in Huntsville, Alabama, for the agency’s Science Mission Directorate in Washington.