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.