After years of anticipation and hard work by NASA’s OSIRIS-REx (Origins, Spectral Interpretation, Resource Identification and Security – Regolith Explorer) team, a capsule of rocks and dust collected from asteroid Bennu finally is on Earth and set up in a temporary cleanroom set up in a hangar on organisation's training range in Utah, US.
It landed at 8:52 am MDT (10:52 am EDT) on Sunday, in a targeted area of the Department of Defense’s Utah Test and Training Range near Salt Lake City.
Within an hour and a half, the capsule was transported by helicopter to a temporary cleanroom set up in a hangar on the training range, where it now is connected to a continuous flow of nitrogen.
The launch of NASA’s OSIRIS-REx asteroid sample collection mission in 2016. Image credit: Grahame Bullimore
Getting the sample under a “nitrogen purge,” as scientists call it, was one of the OSIRIS-REx team’s most critical tasks today. 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.
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.
“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.
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
- NASA Administrator Bill Nelson
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 US – went according to plan thanks to the massive effort of hundreds of people who remotely directed the spacecraft’s journey since it launched on September 8, 2016. The team then guided it to arrival at Bennu on December 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 analyse 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 am MDT). The spacecraft was 63,000 miles (102,000 km) 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 am EDT (8:42 am 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 stabilise and slow the capsule down to a gentle 11 mph (18 kph) at touchdown.