How NASA prepared to collect a sample from an asteroid that slammed into the desert

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An asteroid sample stored inside a NASA spacecraft is about to reach Earth next Traveling for about two and a half years through space.

It is the first time NASA has collected and returned an asteroid sample from space.

along with A sample was previously returned from the asteroid Ryugu Through Japan’s Hayabusa 2 mission, rocks and soil can reveal information about the beginning of our solar system.

Instead of landing, the OSIRIS-REx mission will drop a rock and soil sample and continue on its journey to study another asteroid.

Teams are practicing how to retrieve the sample, originally collected from the near-Earth asteroid Bennu, when it falls in the Utah desert on September 24.

It is estimated that OSIRIS-REx collected up to 8.8 ounces, or about one cup, of material from Bennu.

NASA/Goddard/University of Arizona

Bennu is an asteroid that is a rotating top-shaped pile of rubble, made up of rocks bound together by gravity. It is about a third of a mile (500 metres) wide.

“We are now just weeks away from receiving a piece of solar system history on Earth, and this successful drop test ensures we are prepared,” Nicola Fox, associate administrator for NASA’s Science Mission Directorate, said in a statement. “Authentic material from asteroid Bennu will help shed light on the formation of our solar system 4.5 billion years ago, and perhaps even on how life began on Earth.”

It’s not every day that a spacecraft launches a capsule carrying a rare asteroid sample above the planet and intends to deliver it safely to a designated landing site.

Years of hard work by thousands of people led to the moment the Bennu sample reached Earth.

Over the spring and summer, teams practiced sample capsule recovery and reviewed all the scenarios, good and bad, that could happen on return day.

Keegan Barber/NASA

The capsule will land at the Department of Defense’s Test and Training Range in Utah.

The mission’s original goal was to retrieve an original sample from the asteroid. But if the capsule breaks open, the sample may become contaminated.

“I am extremely proud of the efforts our team has put into this endeavor,” Dante Lauretta, principal investigator for OSIRIS-REx at the University of Arizona in Tucson, said in a statement. “Just as our careful planning and training helped us collect a sample from Bennu, we have honed our sample recovery skills.”

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OSIRIS-REx, which stands for Origins, Spectral Interpretation, Resource Identification, Security and Regolith Explorer, is NASA’s first mission to return samples from asteroids. The spacecraft has been on a seven-year journey. After its launch in 2016, OSIRIS-REx began orbiting the Bennu in 2018. The sample was collected in 2020 And set off on the long journey back to Earth in May 2021.

Since leaving Bennu, the spacecraft has orbited the sun twice so it can be on the right path to rendezvous with Earth.

In July, the mission team sent out a series of maneuvers to help the spacecraft target a landing site for the capsule at the Department of Defense Test and Training Range in Utah outside Salt Lake City.

On September 24, NASA will present A Live broadcast The sample that is delivered to Earth. The live broadcast will begin at 10 a.m. ET, and the capsule containing the sample will enter Earth’s atmosphere at 10:42 a.m. ET, traveling at about 27,650 miles per hour (44,498 kilometers per hour).

Four hours before the capsule enters the atmosphere, the mission team will decide whether to send a command to the spacecraft to launch the capsule, said Rich Burns, OSIRIS-REx project manager at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Maryland.

Keegan Barber/NASA

A training model of a sample return capsule during a drop test is shown. Parachutes will slow the capsule’s descent.

The decision depends on the spacecraft’s trajectory, which determines the safety of humans inside the landing zone, the capsule’s ability to remain at an angle, the return temperature, and the accuracy of the landing. The capsule will be launched when OSIRIS-REx is 63,000 miles (102,000 km) from Earth, heading for an area spanning 250 square miles (647.5 square km) — “the equivalent of throwing a dart the length of a basketball court and hitting the ball.” “Bull’s eye,” Burns said.

Once the capsule is launched, OSIRIS-REx will perform a diversionary maneuver that puts it on a path around the Sun while targeting another asteroid. ApophisTo meet in 2029, Burns said.

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Entering Earth’s atmosphere will envelope the capsule in an extremely hot fireball, but the container’s heat shield will protect the sample inside.

Parachutes will deploy to slow the capsule’s motion for a gentle landing at 11 mph (17.7 kilometers per hour), and rescue teams will be on standby to recover the capsule as soon as it is safe to do so, said Sandra Freund of OSIRIS-REx. Program manager at Lockheed Martin Space, which partnered with NASA to build the spacecraft, provide flight operations and help recover the capsule.

Landing is expected after 13 minutes The capsule enters the Earth’s atmosphere.

Keegan Barber/NASA

Recovery teams participate in helicopter training to retrieve the sample and transport it to the temporary cleanroom.

A helicopter will load the sample into a cargo net and deliver it to a temporary cleanroom set up at the range in June. There, a team will prepare the sample container for transport on a C-17 aircraft to NASA’s Johnson Space Center in Houston on September 25. Details of the sample will be revealed to the public through a NASA broadcast from Johnson on October 11.

Teams at NASA and Lockheed Martin aerospace company rehearsed every possible step to prepare for delivery day, Freund said.

Recently, the team used an aircraft to drop a sample capsule, collect it, and prepare it for transport.

Molly Wasser/NASA

The OSIRIS-REx team conducted its final training exercise on August 30, dropping a mock capsule from 7,000 feet above the ground via helicopter. Infrared, radar and optical instruments on the ground and on aircraft were trained to track the capsule’s descent.

She also worked through difficult scenarios from the command center, such as what to do if the spacecraft restarts, how to bring it out of safe mode, and how to transfer communications between different centers in the event of a network outage.

The team also prepared for different landing scenarios, such as a hard landing where the capsule containing the sample opens unexpectedly. The team will then evaluate whether any of the samples can be saved.

Another possibility is that the spacecraft couldn’t launch the sample on Sept. 24 if landing within range isn’t viable, Burns said. In this scenario, the sample would remain on board the spacecraft, and the spacecraft’s orbit would carry the capsule Back by Earth for another launch attempt over Utah in 2025.

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Johnson Space Center has a history of storing, processing and analyzing extraterrestrial materials, including lunar samples from the Apollo missions. NASA has been working to set up a special facility at Johnson for the Bennu sample for years, said Kevin Reiter, vice president of processing at OSIRIS-REx.

A dedicated cleanroom will prevent any potential contamination with other collections as scientists analyze soil and rocks over the next two years. Some of the material will be smaller than a grain of sand, says Christopher Snead, leader of small particle processing and deputy curator of OSIRIS-REx at Johnson.

“We have developed custom tools to carefully handle these precious particles inside our new glove boxes,” Snead said in a statement, referring to boxes designated for the management of hazardous or extraterrestrial materials.


Researchers will use glove boxes in the new cleanroom at NASA’s Johnson Space Center to carefully handle the sample.

The sample will reveal information about the formation and history of our solar system as well as the role of asteroids in helping develop habitable planets like Earth. Scientists believe that asteroids like Bennu collided with Earth early in its formation, providing it with elements such as water.

The sample will be split and sent to laboratories around the world, including OSIRIS-REx mission partners at the Canadian Space Agency and the Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency. About 70% of the sample will remain pure in storage, so future generations with better technology can learn more than is possible now.

“The asteroids we have in our solar system today are left behind “From the first stage of the history of the solar system,” Lauretta said. “We are literally looking at geological materials that formed before the Earth existed. I call them grandfather rocks, the ones that represent our origins and where we come from. This is a gift to the world.”

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