NASA’s OSIRIS-REx spacecraft has successfully completed its historic mission to collect a sample from the asteroid Bennu and bring it back to Earth. The spacecraft landed in the Utah desert on September 24, 2023, after a seven-year journey that covered more than 5 billion kilometers.
The sample, which weighs about 60 grams, is the largest amount of material ever returned from an asteroid. It is also the first time that NASA has retrieved a sample from a primitive, carbon-rich asteroid that dates back to the origins of the solar system.
A scientific treasure
The sample from Bennu is expected to provide valuable insights into the formation and evolution of the solar system, as well as the origin of life and water on Earth. Bennu is also considered a potentially hazardous asteroid, as it has a small chance of impacting Earth in the late 22nd century. Studying its physical and chemical properties could help scientists devise ways to deflect or mitigate such threats in the future.
Dante Lauretta, the principal investigator of the OSIRIS-REx mission, said that the sample is a “scientific treasure” that will be analyzed for decades to come. He said that the mission was challenging and complex, requiring precise navigation and maneuvering around the asteroid, which has a low gravity and a rugged surface.
A remarkable feat
The OSIRIS-REx spacecraft was launched in September 2016 and reached Bennu in December 2018. It spent two years orbiting and mapping the asteroid, before selecting a suitable site for sample collection. In October 2020, the spacecraft performed a daring “touch-and-go” maneuver, briefly touching the asteroid’s surface with a robotic arm and firing a burst of nitrogen gas to stir up dust and rocks. The spacecraft then captured some of the material in a sample container and stowed it securely.
The spacecraft began its return journey in May 2021 and traveled for four months before reaching Earth. It released the sample capsule, which entered the atmosphere at a speed of about 12 kilometers per second and deployed a parachute to slow down. The capsule was then recovered by a team of scientists and engineers, who transported it to a curation facility at NASA’s Johnson Space Center in Houston, Texas.
The sample will be opened and cataloged in the coming weeks, and then distributed to various laboratories around the world for analysis. Some of the sample will also be preserved for future generations of researchers, who may have more advanced techniques and technologies to study it.
The OSIRIS-REx mission is a collaboration between NASA and the University of Arizona, with the participation of several international partners, including Canada, France, Germany, Italy, Japan, and the United Kingdom. The mission is part of NASA’s New Frontiers program, which supports medium-class planetary exploration projects.