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.
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.
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.
Songs with explicit titles, lyrics and themes will not be played on air or appear in the playlists.
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!
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.
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.
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).
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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
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
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
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
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
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.
2029: Martian Moons Get the Spotlight
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
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.
At NASA’s Kennedy Space Center in Florida, preparations are underway to launch a mission to an asteroid that may hold clues to the origin of the solar system and the source of water and organic molecules found on Earth.
The Origins, Spectral Interpretation, Resource Identification, Security–Regolith Explorer, or OSIRIS-REx, spacecraft arrived at the spaceport from Buckley Air Force Base near Denver aboard an Air Force C-17, touching down on May 20 at the Shuttle Landing Facility. Since that time, the spacecraft was moved to the Payload Hazardous Servicing Facility where technicians and engineers removed it from its shipping container the next day and connected it to a rotation fixture for spin balance testing.
A test of the OSIRIS-REx solar array deployment mechanism recently was conducted along with inspection, cleaning and functional testing of the arrays. An interface test with the Deep Space Network currently is underway.
Targeted for liftoff at 7:05 p.m. EDT, Sept. 8, 2016, aboard a United Launch Alliance Atlas V rocket, OSIRIS-REx will be the first U.S. mission to sample an asteroid, retrieve surface material and return it to Earth for study.
After OSIRIS-REx arrives within three miles of the asteroid, Bennu, the spacecraft will begin six months of comprehensive study and mapping of the surface.
The science team then will select a location where the spacecraft’s arm will take a sample. The spacecraft gradually will move closer to the site, and the arm will extend to collect at least a 2.1-ounce sample for return to Earth in 2023.