NASA’s OSIRIS-REx Asteroid Sample Curation Steps Closer to Final Reveal

As the astromaterials curation team at NASA’s Johnson Space Center continues to collect the bonus asteroid Bennu particles located outside the OSIRIS-REx TAGSAM (Touch-and-Go Sample Acquisition Mechanism) head, they’ve also completed additional steps toward disassembly and reveal of the bulk asteroid sample inside the head.

Five people in blue clean room gowns and white gloves stand around a glove box with a circular sample head inside.
OSIRIS-REx curation team members at NASA’s Johnson Space Center begin the process of removing and flipping the TAGSAM (Touch-and-Go Sample Mechanism) from the avionics deck of the science canister. Credit: NASA/James Blair

Curation scientists removed 14 circular witness plates from the top of the TAGSAM head on Monday and Tuesday. These plates were used to monitor interior environmental conditions of the spacecraft at various points during the mission and were carefully contained and stored away for contamination knowledge.

After removing all 14 plates and collecting any remaining loose dust, the team removed the TAGSAM head from its avionics deck platform and had the first opportunity to view the 24 surface contact pads on the bottom of the head and the asteroid sample beneath the collector head.

When the sample collector touched the asteroid in October 2020, these surface contact pads trapped fine-grained asteroid rocks and dust directly from Bennu’s surface layer. The materials in the contact pads will provide a unique set of samples that will tell scientists about the conditions at the very surface of Bennu.

The asteroid material on and interior to the capture ring — the secure base into which the TAGSAM was seated when stowed — came from the sample collection event. During collection, TAGSAM shot nitrogen gas at Bennu to push asteroid particles from as deep as 19 inches (50 cm) below the surface into the TAGSAM head, which sealed with a flap. If collected particles held that flap open, they would fall out into the area interior to the capture ring.

These two sets of collected materials will thus give scientists information about the surface material and material at greater depths below the surface. Altogether, these fine-grained samples from the asteroid will help scientists and researchers make new discoveries about the geologic history of asteroid Bennu, its impact history, and implications for asteroid impact assessment.

Images of the bulk sample and early analysis results will be revealed during a live NASA event on Wednesday, Oct. 11 at 11 a.m. EDT.

Rachel Barry
NASA’s Johnson Space Center, Houston

OSIRIS-REx Makes Final Course Adjustment Before Sept. 24 Sample Delivery

On Sept. 17, NASA’s OSIRIS-REx engineers slightly shifted the spacecraft’s trajectory to refine the landing location of its sample capsule, which the spacecraft will deliver to Earth on Sept. 24. The spacecraft briefly fired its thrusters Sunday to change its velocity by 7 inches per minute (3 millimeters per second) relative to Earth.

This final correction maneuver moved the sample capsule’s predicted landing location east by nearly 8 miles, or 12.5 kilometers, to the center of its predetermined landing zone inside a 36-mile by 8.5-mile (58-kilometer by 14-kilometer) area on the Defense Department’s Utah Test and Training Range.

Sunday’s maneuver was a tweak of a critical maneuver on Sept. 10, which set the spacecraft on course to release its sample capsule, with rocks and dust from asteroid Bennu, from 63,000 miles (or 102,000 kilometers) above Earth’s surface this weekend.

The spacecraft is currently about 1.8 million miles, or 2.8 million kilometers, away, traveling at about 14,000 mph (about 23,000 kph) toward Earth.

– Lonnie Shekhtman

Calling Music Buffs: Help Make a Playlist for NASA’s OSIRIS-REx Sample Delivery

Calling all music buffs! This one’s for you. We’re gearing up for the Sept. 24 landing of NASA’s first asteroid sample and we want you to provide the soundtrack. Your song requests could be featured during a week of live episodes on Third Rock Radio and on the official Return of the Rock playlists. Third Rock Radio is a NASA- and space-themed online radio station.

From Sept. 18 to 22, Third Rock Radio will host daily OSIRIS-REx-themed shows from 3-5 p.m. EDT featuring your song suggestions on themes related to NASA’s daredevil mission. Third Rock Radio is produced and published by Houston-based RFC Media under a Space Act Agreement with NASA.

You can submit your song requests at Third Rock Radio or on NASA’s social media. Your name or social media handle and your song suggestion could end up on Third Rock Radio!

The daily themes are:

Monday, Sept. 18: Road Trip

Space is big and interplanetary travel takes a long time. OSIRIS-REx launched on Sept. 8, 2016, collected an asteroid sample in 2020, and now is returning to Earth to deliver the sample on Sept. 24. If you were riding along with OSIRIS-REx, what songs would you play to pass the time while you travel?

Tuesday, Sept. 19: Give Me the Rock

Asteroid Bennu is a rubble-pile asteroid, an amalgamation of rocks and dust held loosely together by microgravity. After OSIRIS-REx collected a sample from asteroid Bennu’s surface, scientists discovered that the asteroid was so loosely packed that if a person were to step onto it they would feel as if they were stepping into a child’s ball pit. To honor this rocky world, name a song that ROCKS!

Wednesday, Sept. 20: Time

On Sept. 24, OSIRIS-REx will deliver a capsule containing rocks and dust from asteroid Bennu that could be more than 4.5 billion years old. These rocks are a time capsule from the dawn of our solar system. Share your favorite songs related to time.

Thursday, Sept. 21: The Power of Science

From signs of ancient water on Bennu to particles spewing from its surface, OSIRIS-REx discoveries continue to surprise us. What surprises will we learn when scientists worldwide analyze the asteroid sample in their labs? Give us a song that is science related, or about inventions, discoveries, or anything else that gets you jazzed about the solar system!

Friday, Sept. 22: The Final Countdown

OSIRIS-REx is almost here with the asteroid sample! In these final moments, we need a soundtrack to pump us up and celebrate the hard work that has gone into this historic sample return mission.

The rules:

    1. Songs with explicit titles, lyrics and themes will not be played on air or appear in the playlists.
    2. Third Rock Radio has the flexibility to select which songs will air from the submissions. Third Rock Radio does not guarantee to play any specific song. Want to know if your submission made the cut? Don’t miss the live shows!

– Molly Wasser


OSIRIS-REx Adjusts Course to Target Sample Capsule’s Landing Zone

On Sept. 10, NASA’s OSIRIS-REx spacecraft briefly fired its ACS (attitude control system) thrusters to point itself toward Earth, putting it on course to release its sample capsule, carrying rocks and dust from asteroid Bennu, from 63,000 miles (or 102,000 kilometers) above Earth’s surface on Sunday, Sept. 24.

Yesterday’s trajectory-correction maneuver changed the spacecraft’s velocity about a ½ mph (less than 1 kph) relative to Earth. Without this tiny but critical shift, the spacecraft and its asteroid cargo would have flown past Earth.

On a black background – a star-studded sky – three bright yellow lines cut across the image, all pointing at and past an image of a blue and green planet.
This graphic shows the Earth return trajectory for the OSIRIS-REx spacecraft and for the sample capsule, after the spacecraft releases it above Earth on Sept. 24. The yellow diamonds indicate the dates of spacecraft maneuvers that slightly adjust its trajectory to get it closer, and then pointing at, and then above Earth. Credit: NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center.

But now, the spacecraft is set up to release the capsule to enter the atmosphere just off the coast of California at 8:42 a.m. MDT / 10:42 a.m. EDT.

Traveling at a precise speed and angle, it will land approximately 13 minutes after release in a 36-mile by 8.5-mile (58-kilometer by 14-kilometer) predetermined area on the Department of Defense’s Utah Test and Training Range southwest of Salt Lake City.

Meanwhile, about 20 minutes after releasing the sample capsule, the spacecraft will fire its engines to divert past Earth and onto its next mission to asteroid Apophis: OSIRIS-APEX (OSIRIS-Apophis Explorer).

OSIRIS-REx may fire its thrusters again on Sept. 17 if engineers determine that one final adjustment to its trajectory is necessary before it releases its capsule a week later.

The spacecraft is currently 4 million miles, or 7 million kilometers, away, traveling at about 14,000 mph (about 23,000 kph) toward Earth.

– Lonnie Shekhtman

Here’s How Sept. 24 Asteroid Sample Delivery Will Work

Early morning on Sunday, Sept. 24, the OSIRIS-REx spacecraft’s sample capsule will come face-to-face with Earth’s atmosphere for the first time since the mission’s 2016 launch. On board are an estimated 8.8 ounces, or 250 grams, of rocky material collected from the surface of Bennu in 2020 – NASA’s first asteroid sample and the largest ever collected in space.

When it approaches Earth, the OSIRIS-REx spacecraft won’t slow down as it makes its sample drop-off. Instead, when it reaches 63,000 miles (or 102,000 kilometers) above Earth’s surface – about one-third the distance from Earth to the Moon – a message from operators on the ground will trigger the capsule’s release and the capsule will be sent spinning toward the atmosphere below. Twenty minutes after the drop-off, the spacecraft will fire its thrusters to divert past Earth toward asteroid Apophis, where it will continue investigating our solar system under a new name: OSIRIS-APEX (OSIRIS-Apophis Explorer).

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Meanwhile, after zooming through space for four hours, the capsule will pierce Earth’s atmosphere at 8:42 a.m. MDT (10:42 a.m. EDT), traveling about 27,650 mph (44,500 kph). At this pace, the compression of Earth’s atmosphere will produce enough energy to envelop the capsule in a superheated ball of fire. A heat shield will help to regulate the temperature inside the capsule, keeping the sample safe at a temperature similar to that of Bennu’s surface.

Parachutes will bring the capsule’s descent to a safe landing speed. A drogue parachute designed to provide a stable transition to subsonic speeds will deploy first, about 2 minutes after the capsule enters the atmosphere. Six minutes later – at about 1 mile (1.6 kilometers) above the desert – the main chute will unfurl, carrying the capsule the rest of the way to a 36-mile by 8.5-mile (58-kilometer by 14-kilometer) area on the military range. At touchdown, the capsule will have slowed to about 11 mph (18 kph).

Finally, just 13 minutes after entering the atmosphere, the capsule will be on Earth for the first time in seven years, awaiting the recovery team’s approach.

This graphic shows the events that happen between the time the OSIRIS-REx spacecraft releases its sample capsule to the time it lands in the Utah desert. Credit: Lockheed Martin.

About 20 minutes before the capsule lands, when it is still high above the veil of Earth’s atmosphere, the recovery field team will board four helicopters and head out into the desert. The infrared glow of the capsule’s heat signature will be tracked by thermal instruments until the capsule becomes visible to optical instruments, giving the recovery team a way to trace the capsule’s Earthbound path. The goal for the recovery team is to retrieve the capsule from the ground as quickly as possible to avoid contaminating the sample with Earth’s environment.

Once located and packaged for travel, the capsule will be flown via helicopter longline to a temporary clean room on the military range, where it will undergo initial processing and disassembly in preparation for its journey by aircraft to NASA’s Johnson Space Center in Houston, where the sample will be documented, cared for, and distributed for analysis to scientists worldwide.

– Nathan Marder

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

NASA’s OSIRIS-REx Spacecraft Adjusts Course to Get Closer to Earth

On July 26, NASA’s OSIRIS-REx spacecraft fired its engines for about 63 seconds to slightly thrust itself onto a course closer to Earth.

Preliminary tracking data indicates OSIRIS-REx changed its velocity, which includes speed and direction, by 1.3 miles, or 2 kilometers, per hour. It’s a tiny but critical shift; without course adjustments like this one the spacecraft would not get close enough to Earth on Sept. 24 to drop off its sample of asteroid Bennu.

The spacecraft is currently 24 million miles, or 38.6 million kilometers, away, traveling at about 22,000 miles, or about 35,000 kilometers, per hour toward Earth.

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Over the next few days, engineers will use data collected before and after today’s engine burn, including Doppler radar data, to make sure the maneuver executed as planned and the spacecraft is on the right path.

Today’s trajectory correction maneuver is the final adjustment needed to set up OSIRIS-REx to return to Earth on Sept. 24. Two more maneuvers, on Sept. 10 and 17, will target the precise point in Earth’s atmosphere where the spacecraft’s sample-return capsule must enter to land on target at the Department of Defense’s Utah Test and Training Range near Salt Lake City.

– Lonnie Shekhtman

Here’s What Asteroid Sample Recovery Will Look Like

On July 18-20, the team behind NASA’s OSIRIS-REx mission rehearsed recovering a mock sample return capsule from the location where the real one, with fragments of asteroid Bennu, will land on Sept. 24: the Utah desert.

Though the team has rehearsed portions of the recovery operation many times this year, this was the most realistic rehearsal yet, taking place at the Department of Defense’s Utah Test and Training Range about 80 miles (130 kilometers) southwest of Salt Lake City. Besides taking place at the real landing location, the rehearsal included helicopter training for the OSIRIS-REx team members who will fly by helicopter to retrieve the sample capsule from its landing site inside a 36-mile by 8.5-mile (58-kilometer by 14-kilometer) ellipse on the military range.

Here are a few highlights from the rehearsal:

Two people, wearing caps, sunglasses, and latex gloves, are bent on their knees over a sandy surface. One is holding a small, plastic baggie, while the other is scooping some sand. Another person, with only an elbow and part of the right leg visible, hovers over them in the left-hand side of the image, taking a photo.
OSIRIS-REx team members practice collecting soil samples on the Department of Defense’s Utah Test and Training Range. On July 18-20, 2023, the team rehearsed retrieving a mock sample capsule at the location where the real one, with samples of asteroid Bennu, will land on Sept. 24.  NASA’s OSIRIS-REx spacecraft collected a sample from Bennu in October 2020 and has been traveling back to Earth with it since May 2021. This picture was taken on Tuesday, July 18. Credit: NASA/Keegan Barber.
In the foreground several people are standing with their backs to us. In the background a person is facing us, holding the corner of a large piece of mesh, with a tarp-covered object on top of it. The white ground makes for a beautiful contrast with the bright blue sky. In the right-hand corner stands a helicopter, and next to it, a person with their hands on their hips is facing us.
OSIRIS-REx team members practice getting a mock sample capsule packed for its helicopter flight to a clean room on the Department of Defense’s Utah Test and Training Range. On July 18-20, 2023, the team rehearsed retrieving a mock sample capsule at the location where the real one, with samples of asteroid Bennu, will land on Sept. 24.  NASA’s OSIRIS-REx spacecraft collected a sample from Bennu in October 2020 and has been traveling back to Earth with it since May 2021. This picture was taken on Wednesday, July 19. Credit: NASA/Keegan Barber.
On a beige expanse, a person is pictured wearing a backpack, gloves, and face mask. He is crouching over a mini-fridge size object shaped like a badminton birdie.
A military representative checks the mock sample capsule’s landing site for unexploded ordnance. He will be the first person to approach the real capsule, with samples of asteroid Bennu, when it lands at the at the Department of Defense’s Utah Test and Training Range on Sept. 24. This picture was taken on Tuesday, July 18, at the OSIRIS-REx team’s rehearsal in Utah, which took place July 18-20, 2023. NASA’s OSIRIS-REx spacecraft collected a sample from Bennu in October 2020 and has been traveling back to Earth with it since May 2021. Credit: NASA/Keegan Barber.
Against a bright blue background, a helicopter hovers in the top right corner. A long rope hangs from it, with a mesh pouch at the bottom.
A helicopter practices transporting a mock sample capsule, packed for travel, at the Department of Defense’s Utah Test and Training Range. On July 18-20, 2023, the team rehearsed retrieving a mock sample capsule at the location where the real one, with samples of asteroid Bennu, will land on Sept. 24.  NASA’s OSIRIS-REx spacecraft collected a sample from Bennu in October 2020 and has been traveling back to Earth with it since May 2021. This picture was taken on Wednesday, July 19. Credit: NASA/Keegan Barber.

A full image gallery of rehearsal is available here.

Rehearsal video footage is available here.

– Lonnie Shekhtman

Practicing the Game-Winning Asteroid Sample Catch

The capsule looked like something from a 1960s sci-fi flick. Resting on the ground, slightly tilted, its white heat shield flaked off in places, it looked how one would expect after speeding in from outer space and streaking across the sky like a shooting star. Despite its appearance, the mini-fridge-sized object had, in fact, never left the surface of Earth.

Five people approach a brown and white capsule sitting on a grassy field.
OSIRIS-REx recovery team members from University of Arizona, Lockheed Martin and NASA’s Johnson Space Center approach the sample capsule during a field rehearsal in Colorado at Lockheed Martin Space in June 2023. Credit: Lockheed Martin Space

Instead, it was a replica of the sample capsule mounted on NASA’s OSIRIS-REx spacecraft, which has been cruising through space since it departed asteroid Bennu in May 2021 with an estimated half-pound of pristine asteroid material aboard. For training purposes, engineers placed the replica capsule on a field on the Lockheed Martin campus near Littleton, Colorado, where the spacecraft was built.

OSIRIS-REx team members from NASA, Lockheed Martin, and the University of Arizona had gathered in Littleton on June 27 and 28 to rehearse recovering the capsule. The real one will land on the Department of Defense’s Utah Test and Training Range on Sept. 24.

“We’re literally on a playground here,” said mission Principal Investigator Dante Lauretta, a professor of planetary sciences at University of Arizona in Tucson. “We have room to mess up and practice for the real thing.”

For the June exercise, the recovery team members took their positions next to wooden stakes that represented the four helicopters that will fly them to the capsule landing site.

Picking up a container that dropped from the sky via parachute, bearing 4.5-billion-year-old material collected from an asteroid, is a big deal. The Bennu sample contains primitive material, which could include organic compounds that are found in all Earth life. This material may provide insight into a time when the Sun and planets were born in the swirling cloud of gas and dust that became the solar system. A major goal of the OSIRIS-REx mission is to understand the evolution of organic molecules through solar system history.

Such pristine asteroid material is precious to researchers because it has been shielded from Earth’s environment, unlike meteorites that fall to the ground and are collected on the surface. So the team in Colorado practiced taking samples from the environment around the capsule to create a library of everything it could get exposed to – soil, air, organic matter and so on.

Documenting the environmental conditions around the capsule will be critical for science, Lauretta said: “That way, if we find something that looks fundamental to the origin of life, we’ll have no doubt, and should be able to rule it out as a contaminant because of that documented history.”

Before any team members could approach the capsule to collect environmental evidence, Vicki Thiem, a safety engineer with Lockheed Martin, rehearsed taking its temperature, which she’ll do on Sept. 24 to ensure the capsule has cooled down from its fiery descent through the atmosphere.

Next, the safety team practiced inspecting the area around the capsule for potential hazards, such as gases that might be emanating from it. Once the capsule was secured, Lauretta and his team inspected the terrain, planting little red flags into the ground to demarcate a “keep-out zone” where they needed to collect samples.

People clothed in white from head-to-toe hold a brown capsule in a clean room.
Team members from NASA’s OSIRIS-REx mission rehearse moving the sample capsule into a clean room at Lockheed Martin designed to closely resemble the one that will be used at the Department of Defense’s Utah Test and Training Range on Sept. 24, 2023. Credit: Lockheed Martin Space

Once the capsule was ready for transport, two people lifted the 100-pound (45-kilogram) replica into a metal crate and wrapped it in multiple sheets of a non-reactive plastic material and then a tarp. Next, they wrapped the crate in a harness that was secured to a cable that, in real life, will be attached to a helicopter and flown to a clean room set up in a hangar where the capsule will be opened and the sample canister extracted. The day after the sample lands on Earth, the canister and capsule will be flown to NASA’s Johnson Space Center in Houston where the sample will be cared for, stored, and distributed to global scientists.

The OSIRIS-REx team has two rehearsals left, each with increasingly realistic conditions, at the Utah military training range where the capsule will land this fall.

– Daniel Stolte, University of Arizona

Long History and Bright Future of Space Sample Deliveries

When NASA’s OSIRIS-REx spacecraft releases a capsule with material from asteroid Bennu onto the Utah desert on Sept. 24, it will become the latest in a line of missions to gather samples from space and deliver them to Earth. Collecting material from space is a challenging feat that requires teams of dedicated scientists and engineers, innovative technology, and patience. But the scientific breakthroughs these samples unlock make the effort worthwhile as we attempt to understand the origins of our planet and the life that thrives here.

The practice of retrieving samples from space began in 1969 with NASA’s Apollo 11 mission, the first to land astronauts on the Moon. Many more sample-gathering missions to the Moon and beyond followed, growing in ambition with each passing decade. Here is an overview of the history and future of missions, organized by NASA and its partners, to bring home pieces of space.

1969: NASA’s Moonwalk Delivers First Space Samples
A grainy, black and white image shows a barren, grey surface, with a black sky over the horizon. At the forefront is a small, metallic structure, slightly taller than a human. A person is standing next to the spacecraft, wearing a thick, white suit and helmet with a reflective face shield. The person and spacecraft are bathed in bright light. In the background another spacecraft stands by itself against the dark sky.
This photograph, taken during the second Apollo 12 extravehicular activity, shows two NASA spacecraft on the surface of the Moon. The Apollo 12 Lunar Module is in the background. The uncrewed Surveyor 3 spacecraft is in the foreground. Credit: NASA

NASA astronaut Neil Armstrong’s famous line, “That’s one small step for [a] man, one giant leap for mankind,” commemorated humanity’s first footsteps on a world beyond Earth. It also launched a new era of science, engineering, and exploration. Apollo astronauts collected and returned 842 pounds (382 kilograms) of rocks and dust across six missions. Because Moon rocks are better preserved than Earth rocks, they offered unprecedented insight into how our planet and solar system formed – a history largely erased on Earth by erosion, climate cycles, volcanic activity, and plate tectonics. Among many other things, Apollo samples revealed that the makeup of the Moon and Earth are so similar the two likely formed from the same material. This finding led scientists to theorize that the Moon formed from rock and metal that flung off a collision between a young Earth and a Mars-size object about 4.5 billion years ago.

2004: Genesis Grabs Solar Wind
Shown is an artwork with a dark background and bright streaks streaming in the forefront. These streaks represent the solar wind, a stream of charged particles that shoot out from the Sun. On the right-hand side is the source of the streaks, a bright spot that represents the Sun. The bright spot is enveloped in tiny bright points that represent a cloud of particles in the distance.
An artist’s rendering of solar wind, which is a stream of charged particles continually released from the Sun. Credit: NASA

NASA’s Genesis spacecraft delivered the first samples from beyond the orbit of the Moon in 2004. Placed for more than two years in a gravitationally stable point between the Earth and Sun, the spacecraft collected charged particles streaming out from the Sun, called the solar wind. Scientists wanted to study these particles because they are thought to reflect the chemical composition of the solar system when it was just forming nearly 4.6 billion years ago. After analyzing the sample scientists were surprised to see that Sun particles had different versions, or isotopes, of oxygen and nitrogen compared to Earth. They had expected the Sun and planets to have similar isotopic signatures since everything in the solar system formed from the same cloud of gas and dust, called the solar nebula. One reason for the difference may be that Earth and the rest of the rocky, inner planets formed from the dust of the nebula, whereas the Sun formed from both gas and dust.

2006: Collecting a Comet’s Dusty Halo
Bright spots of varying sizes pop from a pitch-black background. These are galaxies and stars as seen through NASA’s Hubble Space Telescope. At the forefront, the biggest bright spot, which appears smeared, like it's moving down the image, is Comet ISON, which is streaking across the sky, enveloped by a dusty halo.
NASA’s Hubble Space Telescope captured this image of comet ISON, wrapped in a dusty halo, streaking through the sky in April 2013. Credit: NASA/ESA/Hubble Heritage Team

In 2006, NASA’s Stardust mission became the first to collect comet samples and deliver them to Earth. Like the name suggests, Stardust captured dust particles – 10,000 of them – from the halo of dust and gas, called a coma, surrounding comet Wild 2. Scientists made some key discoveries after analyzing bits of Wild 2. Among them was the first detection of glycine in a comet. Glycine is an amino acid, which is a fundamental building block of Earth life. Finding glycine in comet dust supported the theory that some of life’s ingredients formed in space and were delivered to Earth – and possibly other worlds – by comets and asteroids.

2010 & 2020: Going to the Source for History of Solar System
This graphic shows two spin-top shaped asteroids: Bennu, the target of NASA’s OSIRIS-REx mission, and Ryugu, the target of JAXA’s Hayabusa2 mission. Text in bubbles surrounds each asteroid, listing the similarities and differences between the two.
Asteroid Bennu, the target of NASA’s OSIRIS-REx mission, has some similarities with asteroid Ryugu, the target of JAXA’s Hayabusa2 mission — but the two asteroids have their differences, too. After OSIRIS-REx returns a sample of Bennu on Sept. 24, scientists will have a chance to compare and contrast the two asteroids in their labs. Credit: University of Arizona

Asteroid dust – older and better preserved than any material on Earth – offers scientists a window into the birth of the solar system. The first studies of asteroid samples were made possible by JAXA (the Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency), when its Hayabusa spacecraft returned in 2010 with thousands of particles from asteroid Itokawa. Hayabusa2 followed with 0.2 ounces, or 5.4 grams, of asteroid Ryugu in 2020, far exceeding mission requirements. Itokawa and Ryugu samples revealed the structure and chemical composition of “rubble pile” asteroids, which are made of rocks and boulders loosely held together by gravity. The samples also showed that some asteroids, as predicted, contain organic molecules, which could be some of the building blocks of all known life forms. Soon, scientists will have an opportunity to compare Itokawa and Ryugu samples to pieces of asteroid Bennu, which are on their way to Earth now aboard the OSIRIS-REx spacecraft. Through an international agreement, NASA and JAXA are collaborating to analyze and compare samples from the three asteroids, two of which — Ryugu and Bennu — may have broken off the same parent asteroid billions of years ago.

2023: Cruising Back to Earth with Bennu Rocks
This animated, black and white, image shows a jagged surface covered with rocks. A metal arm, lit up in light, with a round, metal device at the bottom, briefly taps the surface and quickly backs away.
Captured on Oct. 20, 2020, during the OSIRIS-REx mission’s Touch-And-Go sample collection event, this series of two images shows the SamCam imager’s field of view at the moment before and after the NASA spacecraft touched down on asteroid Bennu’s surface. Credit: NASA/Goddard/University of Arizona

Setting out to collect at least 2 ounces, or 60 grams, of dust and rocks from Bennu, OSIRIS-REx is on its way home with an estimated 8.8 ounces, or 250 grams, of material, which is just over a cupful. OSIRIS-REx collected the sample from Bennu on Oct. 20, 2020. After the sample reaches Earth on Sept. 24, generations of scientists will get to probe dust from Bennu in their labs to address dozens of questions about the nature of asteroids, the early solar system, and the origins of life. While at Bennu, the OSIRIS-REx spacecraft detected organic carbon and signs that the material Bennu is made of had interacted with liquid water in the past. When the samples reach Earth, scientists will be able to see the complete chemical makeup of Bennu and piece together the history of water and organic matter on the asteroid.

Future Missions

2029: Martian Moons Get the Spotlight
A brownish, pockmarked, and lumpy orb takes up the image. It's shadowed in black over the top third of its body. At the corners of the image, pitch black sky pokes through.
The High Resolution Imaging Science Experiment (HiRISE) camera on NASA’s Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter took this picture of the larger of Mars’ two moons, Phobos on March 23, 2008. This image was taken from a distance of about 4,200 miles (6,800 kilometers). It is presented in color by combining data from the camera’s blue-green, red, and near-infrared channels. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/University of Arizona

JAXA will launch its MMX (Martian Moons eXploration) mission in 2024 to study the Martian moons Phobos and Deimos up close for the first time in history. MMX also will collect surface samples from Phobos, the farthest sampling location yet. JAXA will deliver the samples to Earth in 2029. This mission, which includes a NASA instrument, technology-demonstration sampling system and NASA-supported participating scientists from U.S. institutions, will help address questions about the evolution of Mars and the formation of its two moons.

2033: The Red Planet Comes to Earth
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One of the big goals of space exploration is to determine whether Mars could have supported microbial life, or still does. Orbiters and rovers at the Red Planet have found intriguing evidence that early Mars had liquid water and a protective atmosphere, conditions that could have supported life as we know it. A portable lab in the belly of NASA’s Curiosity rover has even detected organic molecules in Martian soil that may – or may not – be related to life. To try to settle the question of Martian habitability, scientists have dreamt for decades of bringing Martian material to Earth to analyze it with cutting-edge technologies that are too big and too complex to send to space.

Their dreams could soon come true, as NASA and ESA (the European Space Agency) are designing a multi-mission campaign to retrieve samples that NASA’s Mars 2020 Perseverance rover is currently collecting from an ancient river delta in Jezero Crater. Called Mars Sample Return, the campaign is one of the most coordinated endeavors in spaceflight, involving multiple spacecraft, launches, and government agencies. The first spacecraft in a series needed to pick up Perseverance’s samples and bring them to Earth is scheduled to launch in 2027.

– Angel Kumari and Lonnie Shekhtman