How will NASA’s OSIRIS-REx retrieve asteroid samples from space?

On Sunday morning, a brown-and-white capsule will make its way through Earth’s atmosphere, leaving behind a cache of pristine space rock for an anxiously awaiting team of scientists and engineers.

If successful, the sample’s return will mark the end of NASA’s seven-year mission Osiris-Rex — which is the Origin, Spectral Interpretation, Resource Identification and Conservation—Regolith Explorer — launched in 2016. Researchers believe a sample taken from the asteroid Bennu may reveal clues about the origin of our solar system and the origin of life. On our planet.

The model is expected to make landfall at 10:55 a.m. ET on September 24 in the Utah desert, about 80 miles southwest of Salt Lake City. NASA does Live attendance on its YouTube channel starting at 10 am

Earlier on Sunday, the OSIRIS-REX command team held a go-or-no-go vote to decide whether the spacecraft would release the capsule.

If the command team had determined there was a risk to people or property on the ground, they would have diverted the spacecraft’s path and attempted a second return of the asteroid sample in 2025.

But they voted “go,” according to a post on X, formerly known as Twitter, and the capsule was released at 6:42 a.m. ET. It will enter Earth’s atmosphere in four hours. A set of parachutes soon inflates, slowing the capsule to a soft touchdown.

Bennu, like other asteroids, is a geological relic of a swirling mix of gas and dust billions of years ago that eventually coalesced into planets. Its regolith, or the loose rock and dust that sits on its surface, holds the memory of our solar system’s origin and evolution. One theory among planetary scientists is that asteroids like Bennu once seeded Earth with life-forming materials.

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But it is difficult to study these concepts using fragments of asteroids or meteorites that have fallen to Earth. Instead, many scientists are turning their eyes (and their instruments) to space.

This isn’t the first time researchers have brought back bits of the universe. In 2020, a mission led by the Japanese space agency JAXA recovered a few grams of regolith from the near-Earth asteroid Ryugu. The OSIRIS-REX mission team expects Bennu to contain half a pound of untainted asteroid dirt.

OSIRIS-REX launched in 2016, embarking on a roundabout series of fuel-efficient orbits through the inner Solar System. It came to Bennu two years later.

The mission team spent two years exploring the asteroid, looking for a safe place to capture regolith that OSIRIS-REX could bring back to Earth. In October 2020, the team used an instrument that poked Bennu’s surface, then bounced like a pogo stick.

Six months later, OSIRIS-REX began its two-year journey home.

Once recovered, the capsule will be moved to a temporary clean room at the Department of Defense’s Utah Test and Training Range and then to a curation facility at NASA’s Johnson Space Center in Houston. The modeling team expects to reveal its first results to the world in October, including the composition of Bennu and how it compares to material brought back from other asteroids. The researchers will conduct the next two years A more robust investigation Asteroid.

The spacecraft will have a second life. It will launch a second mission to visit Apophis, a similar near-Earth asteroid. Pass our planet in 2029, one-tenth the distance to the Moon. Information from the named task OSIRIS-APEX – APEX stands for Apophis Explorer – useful for mitigating potentially dangerous encounters with asteroids in the future.

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