NASA’s OSIRIS-REx clean room team has finished disassembling the sample capsule and packaging its components, including the unopened sample canister. Now packed in shipping containers – along with the environmental samples the recovery team collected around the capsule’s landing site this morning – the items are scheduled to be delivered on Monday, Sept. 25, to their permanent home at NASA’s Johnson Space Center in Houston.
At 12:37 a.m. EDT (10:37 a.m. MDT), a helicopter gently placed NASA’s OSIRIS-REx sample capsule, attached to the end of a 100-foot cable, on the ground outside a hangar on the Department of Defense’s Utah Test and Training Range. Two technicians on the ground helped guide the capsule down.
Once the helicopter line was detached and the helicopter had departed, the clean room team removed the capsule from its metal transport cradle. They loaded the capsule onto a cart and wheeled it into the hangar where a temporary clean room had been set up. In the hangar, the capsule was fully unwrapped and cleaned, and then taken into the clean room for disassembly.
To protect the clean room from contaminants, only six people are allowed inside. Covered from head to toe in bunny suits, hoods, nitrile gloves, shoe covers, plus hair and beard covers, their job is to disassemble the capsule and remove the unopened sample canister inside. They will package all the parts for transport by aircraft to NASA’s Johnson Space Center in Houston on Monday morning.
As soon as the disassembly team opens the capsule and removes several components, exposing the unopened sample canister, the plan is to connect the canister to a continuous flow of nitrogen, which will be monitored every hour. Nitrogen is an inert gas that will protect the Bennu sample from oxygen, moisture, and other contaminants; NASA has used nitrogen to protect space samples since the Apollo era.
If clean room staff find loose asteroid particles inside the capsule, they will collect them and place them in aluminum cups for transfer to Johnson.
The disassembly and packaging process is expected to last about five hours, with a clean room technician documenting the process for NASA’s history records.
With the sample secured and the area around the sample capsule deemed safe, NASA’s OSIRIS-REx team completed the detailed and highly coordinated recovery process (which they have practiced many times in the past year). They placed the 100-pound capsule into a metal cradle and wrapped it in multiple sheets of Teflon and then a tarp. Next, the team wrapped the crate in a harness and secured it to one end of a 100-foot cable hanging from a helicopter.
Now, the capsule is being flown to a temporary clean room on base by the long-line helicopter. In the clean room, it will be disassembled and packaged in parts for transport on Monday to NASA’s Johnson Space Center in Houston, its permanent home.
Three scientists from NASA and University of Arizona remain at the capsule’s landing site, along with a military safety specialist and helicopter pilot. The scientists will collect soil and air samples from the area to catalog everything the capsule could have been exposed to. If any air or soil somehow made it to the sample canister inside the capsule, scientists will need to account for those contaminants when they analyze the chemical makeup of Bennu’s dust.
A mission goal is to search for molecules which may have been important to the origin of life on Earth (or possibly elsewhere in the solar system). Many of these compounds are abundant in Earth’s environment. Thus, to preserve the science and more easily distinguish between molecules from Earth and those from space, is it imperative to protect the sample from environmental contamination.
Having received the capsule’s precise coordinates from radar trackers when it landed, NASA’s OSIRIS-REx helicopter recovery team arrived at its landing location within 20 minutes.
A U.S. Air Force munitions specialist was the first person to disembark a helicopter. His task was to identify and clear the area around the capsule of any possible munitions left over from military training. He also marked a safe approach path with small flags for the OSIRIS-REx team members who will be working with and around the capsule.
The next person to approach the capsule was a Lockheed Martin engineer who inspected the condition of the capsule and measured the gas levels just around it. She wore heat-resistant gloves in case the capsule was still hot from its interaction with the atmosphere, and a gas mask in case the capsule battery was damaged and releasing noxious gases such as sulfur dioxide.
To protect the sample from possible contamination, the Lockheed engineer secured covers over the capsule vents, which are designed to let air in, through a filter, to adjust the pressure inside the capsule as it traveled to and from space through Earth’s atmosphere. She also covered the canister where the parachutes were stored (both parachutes separated from the capsule, as planned).
The plan now is for the rest of the team to approach the capsule to pack it up for its flight to the temporary clean room on the military range.
The U.S. has, for the first time, delivered rocks and dust from an asteroid to Earth. NASA’s OSIRIS-REx sample capsule, carrying a sample of asteroid Bennu, touched down on the Department of Defense’s Utah Test and Training Range at 10:52 a.m. EDT (8:52 a.m. MDT).
Radar data from the Utah Testing and Training Range confirmed that the capsule entered Earth’s atmosphere as planned at 10:42 a.m. EDT (8:42 a.m. MDT) off the coast of California.
The drogue parachute, the smaller of the two parachutes onboard the capsule, opened after atmospheric entry to help with stability and later separated from the capsule. The main parachute deployed at 10:47 am EDT (8:47 pm EDT). It slowed the capsule down from hypersonic speed to about 11 mph by the time it touched the ground.
With the spacecraft diverted away from Earth and traveling toward its new destination, the focus of NASA’s OSIRIS-REx team is on the capsule.
OSIRIS-REx and military recovery team members aboard four helicopters and two backup ground vehicles are waiting just outside the capsule’s designated landing area on the Department of Defense’s Utah Test and Training Range in order to get to the capsule as quickly as possible once it touches down (although the recovery plan allows 40 hours to locate it). The team’s goal is to get the capsule to a temporary clean room on the range as soon as possible to protect it from contamination from Earth’s environment.
The capsule will not be visible to the naked eye as it descends and lands because it is small – about the size of a large truck tire – and coming in during daylight hours onto an area that most people can’t access.
There are no location sensors on the capsule, so the team will rely on aircraft and ground instruments to track its descent. Infrared instruments should be able track the capsule’s heat signature when it’s still high in the sky. This heat comes from the capsule’s interaction with Earth’s atmosphere: Because it will be traveling thousands of miles per hour, the compression of the atmosphere will produce enough energy to envelop the capsule in a superheated ball of fire. The sample will remain safe, since the capsule is protected by a heat shield that regulates the temperature inside, keeping the sample below 167 degrees Fahrenheit, reminiscent of Bennu’s surface.
Radar and optical instruments will track the capsule as well. As soon as it is low enough to be visible to an optical camera aboard a NASA H135 helicopter, the helicopter will provide a live feed of the capsule’s final descent and landing on NASA TV and on the agency’s website.
Once the capsule is on the ground, at around 10:55 a.m. EDT (8:55 a.m. MDT), radar instruments will provide its coordinates, triggering the recovery team to head to the landing location.
NASA’s OSIRIS-REx spacecraft completed its final task for this mission when it released its sample capsule toward Earth less than an hour ago. About 20 minutes after doing so, the spacecraft fired its engines to divert past Earth toward its new mission to asteroid Apophis and was renamed OSIRIS-APEX.
Roughly 1,000 feet wide, Apophis will come within 20,000 miles of Earth – less than one-tenth the distance between Earth and the Moon – in 2029. OSIRIS-APEX is scheduled to enter orbit of Apophis soon after the asteroid’s close approach of Earth to see how the encounter affected the asteroid’s orbit, spin rate, and surface.
Doppler data indicates that NASA’s OSIRIS-REx spacecraft released its sample capsule toward Earth at 6:42 a.m. EDT (4:42 a.m. MDT), as planned, from 63,000 miles of Earth’s surface – about one-third the distance from Earth to the Moon.
After traveling for about four hours through space, the capsule will enter the atmosphere off the coast of California at about 10:42 a.m. EDT (8:42 a.m. MDT) and head east. It will land about 13 minutes later in a predetermined 36-mile by 8.5-mile area on the Department of Defense’s Utah Test and Training Range near Salt Lake City.
Flat and relatively barren, the military range covers about 1.5 million largely uninhabited acres of the Great Salt Lake desert, with much of the air space above closed to non-training-range aircraft, making it an ideal landing location. (NASA’s Stardust mission landed a sample capsule of particles from comet Wild 2 on the Utah range in 2006.)