Final Rehearsal Prepares Mission Team for Sept. 24 Bennu Sample Retrieval

Though there are only 24 days left until the mission’s seven-year journey comes to its climactic end, the mood of NASA’s OSIRIS-REx team is calm. After months of rehearsals, it was clear during the final dress rehearsal this week in Utah that the team has mastered the intricate steps required to retrieve the sample of asteroid Bennu after it lands on Earth on Sept. 24.

On Aug. 28 – 30, OSIRIS-REx team members simulated the procedures they will follow next month to navigate the spacecraft to Earth, instruct it to release the capsule carrying the asteroid sample, monitor the capsule as it flies through the atmosphere onto a predetermined landing ellipse at the Department of Defense’s Utah Test and Training Range, quickly retrieve it from the ground to prevent contamination from Earth’s environment, and transport it by helicopter to a temporary clean room on the range.

Here are a few highlights:

A round, striped parachute is pictured drifting toward the desert ground. Attached to the parachute is a long cable, which is carrying a cone-shaped capsule at the bottom.
A capsule descends toward the ground under a parachute on Aug. 30, 2023. A helicopter dropped a replica of the sample capsule, on its way back to Earth aboard the OSIRIS-REx spacecraft, from 7,000 feet above the surface of the Department of Defense’s Utah Test and Training Range as part of the final rehearsal the mission held this week before the real sample capsule lands on the Utah range on Sept. 24. Infrared, radar, and optical instruments on the ground and on airplanes practiced tracking the mock capsule’s descent in preparation for the real capsule descent and landing next month. Credit: NASA/Keegan Barber.
In the forefront, on a rugged strop of land, two figures are handling a cone-shaped object. In the background is a bright, day sky, and beneath it a sandy desert. Two figures are seen walking toward the viewer, with a helicopter behind them.
On Aug. 30, 2023, the OSIRIS-REx team held their final rehearsal before a sample of asteroid Bennu lands on Earth on Sept. 24. Pictured here are capsule recovery team members of from OSIRIS-REx and from the military packing up a mock capsule. The capsule had just been delivered to this location by helicopter. About 30 minutes beforehand, the helicopter had dropped the capsule from 7,000 feet above the surface of the Department of Defense’s Utah Test and Training Range. The capsule descended by parachute to the ground, while infrared, radar, and optical instruments on the ground and on airplanes practiced tracking its descent, as they will do when the real capsule lands next month. Credit: NASA/Molly Wasser.
A helicopter is shown in the left forefront. Several figures huddle in the far right. Behind them is another helicopter.
The principal investigator of NASA’s OSIRIS-REx mission, Dante Lauretta (third from left), huddles with team members on Aug. 29, 2023. The team is preparing to board helicopters on the Department of Defense’s Utah Test and Training Range that will fly them to the site on the range where a mock sample capsule had been placed the day before. Once at the simulated landing site, Lauretta and the rest of the capsule recovery team practiced the procedures designed to locate, approach, pack up, and fly the capsule to a temporary clean room on the range. Credit: NASA/Keegan Barber.
Several figures stand in a line on a cement floor in the forefront of the image. They are standing behind video cameras mounted on tripods. A tall, domed ceiling is visible high above them. About 10 feet in front them sit two figures on stools behind a tall table. Behind the people sitting at the table is a helicopter.
Staff from the OSIRIS-REx communications team, seated in the top right, along with members of the Air Force’s 2nd Audiovisual Squadron, behind the cameras, set up for a television broadcast. The Sept. 24 broadcast will cover the arrival of a capsule containing a sample of asteroid Bennu, including the capsule descent through Earth’s atmosphere, landing on the Department of Defense’s Utah Test and Training Range, pickup from the ground, and transport to a temporary clean room on the range. Tune in to NASA TV or on Sept. 24 at 10 a.m. EDT / 8 a.m. MTD. Image taken on Aug. 27, 2023. Credit: NASA/Keegan Barber.

More images of the final rehearsal are available here.

– Lonnie Shekhtman

Guest Blog: Preparing for Any Sample Return Scenario

By Sandra Freund, OSIRIS-REx Program Manager, Lockheed Martin

On Sept. 24, samples of asteroid Bennu will arrive on Earth, thanks to NASA’s OSIRIS-REx spacecraft and its mission to obtain fragments of this rocky body. The flight portion of the mission, many years in the making, will end when its sample return capsule lands in the Utah desert and is safely recovered by our team.

A smiling woman, with long blond hair, sun-kissed skin, and a black top is shown from the shoulders up.
Sandra Freund, OSIRIS-REx Program Manager, Lockheed Martin Space. Credit: Lockheed.

So far, the OSIRIS-REx mission is well on track, but we must plan for several possible scenarios to ensure sample delivery is a success. We do this by conducting rehearsals in the months leading up to capsule landing. These rehearsals involve the flight team responsible for instructing the spacecraft to release the capsule, as well as the recovery team responsible for getting the capsule from the Utah desert and into the protection of a clean room.

We practice beforehand to optimize accuracy and minimize the chances of mistakes during the capsule’s Earth arrival. By simulating different scenarios, our team can anticipate challenges and work through contingency plans to effectively address them.

As the OSIRIS-REx program manager at Lockheed Martin in Littleton, Colorado, I oversee our flight team and work with our recovery team lead to ensure that we are ready for any deviations to the anticipated release and recovery of the sample.

In the early morning hours of Sept. 24, the team will send commands to the spacecraft to release the sample capsule. Though we expect everything to go according to plan, complications could happen, as is true with any space mission, so we must anticipate potential issues with the spacecraft or sample-return capsule hardware, or possible software errors.

To challenge the team, our operational readiness test coordinator from NASA throws curveballs at us during rehearsals. For instance, the team recently rehearsed a situation where the spacecraft unexpectedly rebooted and went into safe mode, which is when all non-essential systems shut down to preserve the spacecraft’s health. The team practiced bringing the spacecraft out of safe mode, which includes re-establishing high-rate communications, reloading files onto it – not unlike when you get a new phone and need to re-add your apps and contacts – and reconfiguring it for regular operations.

OSIRIS-REx team members celebrate the successful collection of a sample from the surface of asteroid Bennu. Oct. 20, 2020. Credit: NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center.

We’ve also simulated network outages in the Mission Support Area at Lockheed Martin, where we couldn’t communicate with the spacecraft and had to transfer control to our backup crew at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Maryland.

By rehearsing these kinds of scenarios as part of our standard preparation process, the team is working together to problem-solve and prepare for anything that comes our  way. These rehearsals maximize the chances of a successful recovery and ensure the ideal preservation of the precious asteroid sample.

I am confident in the engineering of the OSIRIS-REx spacecraft and in the team’s abilities to adapt to any situation, and I cannot wait to see them in action in September as we get the sample capsule to Earth following its epic journey to asteroid Bennu.