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NASA Prepares For OSIRIS-REx Asteroid Sample ReEntry & Landing

A team led by NASA in Utah’s West Desert are in the final stages of preparing for the arrival of the first US asteroid sample which will return to Earth this September.

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Zac Aubert

Zac Aubert

Sat Sep 02 2023Written by Zac Aubert

A team led by NASA in Utah’s West Desert are in the final stages of preparing for the arrival of the first US asteroid sample which will return to Earth this September.

The OSIRIS-REx mission, short for Origins, Spectral Interpretation, Resource Identification, and Security – Regolith Explorer, is poised to unlock new insights into the formation of our solar system through the analysis of these pristine asteroid samples.

"Boy, is the science team excited to get that. We're going back to the dawn of the solar system." - Dante Lauretta, Principal Investigator for OSIRIS-REx at the University of Arizona

The OSIRIS-REx capsule, carrying material collected from the asteroid Bennu during a "touch-and-go" mission in October 2020, will arrive on Earth early in the morning on September 24, 2023.

In a crucial dress rehearsal on August 30, teams executed a flawless practice run for the recovery of the sample return capsule from NASA's OSIRIS-REx mission.

The rehearsal was part of the final preparations for the return of the genuine OSIRIS-REx capsule, carrying an estimated 250 grams of invaluable material from Bennu. The capsule was dropped from a helicopter at an altitude of more than 2,000 meters, descending under a parachute to land at the Utah Test and Training Range west of Salt Lake City. There, personnel underwent a series of procedures to prepare the capsule for transport to NASA's Johnson Space Center.

"We put our teams in the field, in the environment they're going to be in, using the communications tools and the equipment they're actually going to use on the day of recovery." - Rich Burns, OSIRIS-REx Project Manager at NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center

There are still several critical milestones to achieve before scientists can begin analyzing the precious samples. On September 10, the spacecraft will perform a crucial maneuver to align its trajectory with the Utah Test and Training Range. A week later, another maneuver will further refine its path, aiming for an elliptical region of 650 square kilometers within the range.

The final decision to release the capsule will be made just hours before the landing; when the spacecraft will be about 108,000 kilometers from Earth.

"We have a very long four hours from release until reentry." - Sandra Freund, OSIRIS-REx Program Manager at Lockheed Martin

The capsule will reenter Earth's atmosphere at a staggering speed of more than 43,000 kilometers per hour, gradually slowing down during reentry and parachute deployment, eventually landing safely 13 minutes later. After releasing the capsule, the main OSIRIS-REx spacecraft will execute a "divert" maneuver to avoid reentering Earth's atmosphere. It will pass by Earth at a distance of 800 kilometers, setting the stage for an extended mission to visit the asteroid Apophis shortly after its close flyby of Earth in 2029.

NASA is prepared for contingencies during the reentry and landing phase, including the possibility of the capsule crashing into the ground at high speed, as was the case with NASA's Genesis mission in 2004. The team is ready to preserve as much of the sample as possible if any issues arise.

If all goes according to plan, the analysis of the samples will commence almost immediately after the sample container is safely delivered to a clean room at a curation facility at NASA's Johnson Space Center. An October 11 press conference will mark the beginning of the analysis phase, followed by presentations at the Fall Meeting of the American Geophysical Union in December.