Cosmic Treasure: NASA's Osiris-Rex Returns with Asteroid Bennu's Bounty

A composite mosaic capturing asteroid Bennu, comprising 12 PolyCam images taken on December 2, 2018, by the OSIRIS-REx spacecraft from a distance of 15 miles (24 km). Credit: NASA/Goddard/University of Arizona

Sep 20, 2023 - NASA's OSIRIS-REx mission, an ambitious venture marking the United States' first-ever attempt to gather a sample from an asteroid, is poised to return to Earth on September 24, 2023. This monumental expedition promises to bring back a precious sample from none other than asteroid Bennu, providing scientists with a captivating glimpse into the nascent days of our solar system.

How long did it take osirisrex to reach bennu? The Journey to Bennu

The odyssey of the OSIRIS-REx spacecraft commenced on September 8, 2016, when it gracefully ascended from Cape Canaveral, Florida, atop an Atlas V 411 rocket. Following its launch, the spacecraft embarked on a year-long journey orbiting the sun before employing Earth's gravitational field to catapult itself toward Bennu. In August 2018, OSIRIS-REx initiated its approach to Bennu, employing an array of small rocket thrusters to synchronize its velocity with that of the enigmatic asteroid.

The Challenges of the Mission

The OSIRIS-REx mission encountered extraordinary navigational challenges, primarily due to the diminutive size of its target and the remarkable proximity at which the spacecraft operated in relation to Bennu. The spacecraft's path was highly susceptible to the influence of minute forces, solar radiation pressure, and inaccuracies in modeling Bennu's gravitational field. The uncertainties surrounding Bennu's physical properties introduced an additional layer of complexity.

The Technology Behind OSIRIS-REx

The OSIRIS-REx spacecraft, designed and developed by Lockheed Martin, drew upon the heritage of prior missions. It featured the Touch-and-Go Sample Acquisition Mechanism (TAGSAM), a pivotal instrument for collecting samples from Bennu's surface. The spacecraft's meticulous two-year survey of asteroid Bennu's terrain, coupled with its brief sample-collection touchdown, unveiled the profound gaps in our knowledge concerning celestial bodies.

What is OsirisRex bringing back from the Asteroid? The Sample Collection Process

On October 20, 2020, NASA's OSIRIS-REx spacecraft achieved a momentous feat by descending to the surface of asteroid Bennu and collecting rock fragments from the Nightingale sample site during its Touch-and-Go (TAG) maneuver. A mere two days later, the mission team received a triumphant confirmation as OSIRIS-REx relayed images demonstrating that it had amassed an ample quantity of material, surpassing one of its primary mission objectives—procuring at least 2 ounces (60 grams) of the asteroid's surface material.

How long will it take OsirisRex to return to earth? The Return Journey

As the OSIRIS-REx spacecraft approaches Earth, it will not decelerate during the sample delivery. Instead, when it reaches an altitude of 63,000 miles (approximately 102,000 kilometers) above Earth's surface—equivalent to about one-third of the distance between Earth and the Moon—a signal from ground operators will activate the capsule's release, initiating its descent towards the Earth's atmosphere.

Upon entering Earth's atmosphere at speeds approximately 36 times that of sound, the capsule may encounter various weather conditions, including wind and rain, as it descends closer to the surface. Regardless of weather patterns, its final destination will be the Great Salt Lake Desert.

The Sample Recovery

Once located and secured for transport, the capsule will be transported via helicopter longline to a temporary clean room within a military range. Here, it will undergo initial processing and disassembly in preparation for its journey aboard an aircraft to NASA's Johnson Space Center in Houston. At the center, scientists will carefully unpack the sample, distributing up to a quarter of it to the global OSIRIS-REx science team for detailed analysis while curating the remainder for study by other scientists.

Future Plans After OSIRIS-REx

Following the successful delivery of its sample capsule to Earth, OSIRIS-REx will embark on an extended mission to rendezvous with another asteroid. The spacecraft will be rechristened as OSIRIS-Apophis Explorer (OSIRIS-APEX) and redirected to encounter asteroid Apophis during its near approach to Earth in 2029.

The Significance of The Mission

The pristine materials harvested from Bennu, comprising rocks and dust collected from the asteroid's surface in 2020, represent an invaluable resource for generations of scientists. These specimens provide a unique portal to the ancient era when our Sun and planets coalesced roughly 4.5 billion years ago. Scientists anticipate that this pristine material may yield insights into the conditions that led to life's emergence on Earth and enhance our comprehension of asteroids with the potential to impact our planet.