NASA’s first spacecraft to collect a sample from an asteroid will complete its 7-year mission later this year when OSIRIS-REx drops off some of asteroid Bennu in Utah.
OSIRIS-REx – a fancy acronym for Origins Spectral Interpretation Resource Identification Security Regolith Explorer – collected an estimated 2 pounds of asteroid rocks and dirt known as regolith in 2020.
Before the spacecraft used its pogo-stick-like arm to vacuum up regolith, it first took two years of spaceflight to catch up with the asteroid and then orbited the small world, mapping its surface.
In September, OSIRIS-REx will deploy a small capsule with Bennu dirt inside, setting it on a trajectory for Earth. The capsule will hopefully land on Sept. 24 with the help of a parachute in Utah.
The landing zone is within a 250-square-mile area at the Department of Defense’s Utah Test and Training Range. The remote area near the U.S. Army’s Dugway Proving Ground was founded after the Pearl Harbor attack.
As the sample return date nears, the team has been rehearsing procedures to collect and protect the sample from contaminants. In August, a helicopter will drop a replica of the return capsule in the middle of the landing zone about the size of Rhode Island. The OSIRIS-REx mission team will use tracking cameras and radar to practice recovery operations during this dress rehearsal.
What happens to the asteroid sample?
When the real thing happens, the capsule will be collected with every effort to maintain a pristine sample and won't be opened until it's brought to NASA's Johnson Space Center in Houston.
Lockheed Martin built and operates the spacecraft for NASA and is responsible for the capsule recovery.
On opening day, a Lockheed employee will have the honor of opening the capsule lid.
Asteroids are essentially fossils of our solar system, and scientists believe Bennu contains material that may date back to the formation of our solar system. The sample will be analyzed to learn more about how we got here and how Earth could deflect a potentially-hazardous asteroid like Bennu when that becomes necessary.
NASA will also share some of the sample with JAXA, the Japanese Aerospace Exploration Agency. Japan became the first nation to collect a sample from an asteroid.
More than 13 years ago, JAXA's Hayabusa spacecraft collected a sample from asteroid Itokawa and then two years ago, Hayabusa collected and returned a sample from another asteroid called Ryugu.
What will OSIRIS-REx do after the asteroid sample is returned?
After the drop-off, OSIRIS-Rex will begin a new mission to study near-Earth asteroid Apophis. On the next leg of its journey, the spacecraft will be called OSIRIS-APEX with a new principal investigator, University of Arizona planetary science professor Daniella DellaGiustina.
Instead of chasing down an asteroid and collecting a sample, this time, OSIRIS-APEX will wait for its subject. Asteroid Apophis is set to make a close flyby of Earth in 2029, close enough to see it with the naked eye.
The OSIRIS-Rex mission holds the Guinness Book of World Records for the smallest object orbited, but Apophis is smaller than asteroid Bennu. It will be a new challenge in spacecraft navigation.