Bonanza of Asteroid Riches Lands in Utah

Bonanza of Asteroid Riches Lands in Utah

Seven years after it left Earth, a capsule landed in Utah today delivering the biggest bonanza of pristine asteroid material in the history of the space program. The approximately 250 grams of regolith from the asteroid Bennu took more than two years to make the trip home where scientists are eagerly awaiting the moment when they get to see exactly what’s inside.

The OSIRIS-REx Sample Return Capsule (SRC), built by Lockheed Martin, landed at the Air Force’s Utah Test and Training Range at 10:52 am ET, about three minutes ahead of schedule because its main parachute opened earlier than expected.

During a post-landing press conference there was some confusion as to whether the drogue parachute deployed and, if so, when. Principal Investigator Dante Lauretta from the University of Arizona, who has been working on this mission for almost 20 years, was in a helicopter on the way to the landing site and admitted to being quite worried when he didn’t hear a call out that the drogue chute had been spotted at the expected time.  “I was mentally preparing myself for the worst case scenario” when finally the report came that the main parachute was out. At that point “I emotionally just let it go. Tears were streaming down my eyes.”

If neither the drogue nor the main parachutes worked, the capsule would have slammed into Earth, possibly breaching the capsule and exposing the samples to Earth’s environment and compromising their scientific utility.

Lauretta along with NASA, Air Force, and Lockheed Martin officials were quickly on the scene to secure the capsule, which landed safely. Lauretta said it was like greeting an old friend and he wanted to “give it a hug.”

OSIRIS-REx Principal Investigator Dante Lauretta, University of Arizona (standing closest to the Sample Return Capsule) collects science data along with NASA Astromaterials Curator Francis McCubbin and NASA Sample Return Capsule Science Lead Scott Sandford shortly after the capsule landed at the Air Force Utah Test and Training Range, September 24, 2023. Photo Credit: NASA/Keegan Barber
The black OSIRIS-REx Sample Return Capsule and its orange and white parachute on the desert floor at the Air Force Utah Test and Training Range, September 24, 2023. Photo Credit: NASA/Keegan Barber

The capsule was taken by helicopter to a clean room at the adjacent Army Dugway Proving Ground where it is being prepared to be flown on a C-17 aircraft to Johnson Space Center in Houston tomorrow. JSC is home to NASA’s astromaterials curation facility that houses samples collected from the Moon during the Apollo missions, of the solar wind by the Genesis mission, of comet Wild-D by Stardust, and other extraterrestrial sources.

The capsule will be opened there tomorrow or Tuesday and the process of extracting every particle collected by the OSIRIS-REx Touch-and-Go Sample Acquisition Mechanism (TAGSAM) three years ago will begin.

The Origins, Spectral Interpretation, Resource Identification, Security-Regolith Explorer (OSIRIS-REx) spacecraft was launched in September 2016 and arrived at Bennu in December 2018 after a 334 million kilometer (207 million mile) journey. It spent amost two years orbiting the 500-meter (1,600-foot) diameter asteroid, about the size of the Empire State Building, collecting data and imagery before touching down on October 20, 2020. It departed in May 2021 when Bennu and Earth were properly aligned for the trip back and it’s taken this long to get home.

Asteroid Bennu as seen by OSIRIS-REx. Credit: NASA-Goddard, University of Arizona

Bennu turned out to be quite different from what scientists expected. The surface is cluttered with rocks rather than being like a sandy beach and some of the pebbles constantly spew out into space. When the spacecraft touched down briefly, it sank into the surface, collecting an over-abundance of material that briefly prevented a flap on the spacecraft from closing properly and some of the samples drifted off into space.

NASA’s Jim Garvin shows a replica of the sample head that contains the material collected from Bennu by OSIRIS-REx and is inside the Sample Return Capsule. Screenshot from NASA TV coverage of the SRC landing September 24, 2023.

The goal was to collect 60 grams, but Lauretta thinks they may have more than four times that much.  They won’t know exactly how much until they extract it from the sample head. NASA Goddard Space Flight Center planetary scientist Jim Garvin co-hosted NASA’s live coverage of the landing today and showed a replica of the sample head, jokingly comparing it to an “old Chevy carburetor.”

OSIRIS-REx is NASA’s first asteroid sample return mission, but not the first to bring back asteroid samples. The Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency (JAXA) brought back samples from asteroid Itokawa in 2010 and asteroid Ryugu in 2020, though the amounts were much smaller than the estimated 250 grams (8.8 ounces) from Bennu.

Studying asteroids is important to understanding the origin of the solar system 4.5 billion years ago and how life evolved thereafter. NASA will share the material collected by OSIRIS-REx with JAXA scientists and others around the world.

Today may have been the end of the OSIRIS-REx flight mission, but it’s the beginning of OSIRIS-Apophis Explorer (OSIRIS-APEX). What returned to Earth today was only the sample capsule. The rest of the spacecraft continues on its journey in space and will encounter the asteroid Apophis after it makes a close approach to Earth on April 13, 2029.

And while the OSIRIS-REx flight mission may be over, sample analysis is just beginning.

NASA Planetary Science Division Director Lori Glaze described the bounty of material as a “treasure for years and years and years to come, to our kids and our grandkids and people who haven’t even been born yet. It’s going to be absolutely incredible.” Eileen Stansbery, Chief of the Astromaterials Research and Exploration Science Division at JSC, called the samples “a treasure trove for generations.”

Thomas Zurbuchen, who oversaw OSIRIS-Rex for six of the seven years it was in flight as Associate Administrator for NASA’s Science Mission Directorate and is now with ETH Zurich|Space in Switzerland, sounded a similar theme today telling that retrieving samples like this is an investment in the future.

“Successfully bringing back Bennu samples is a crowning achievement for the resilient O-Rex team. This milestone marks the beginning of exploration using the best labs available to humanity right here on Earth to address fundamental questions about our solar system. Retrieving samples from space is also an investment in future generations of researchers — as time goes on, the science questions change, and so do the analyses: new questions, new breakthrough science.” — Thomas Zurbuchen

Today’s landing marks the beginning of what NASA describes as “Asteroid Autumn.”  On Tuesday, NASA celebrates the one-year anniversary of the DART mission impacting an asteroid as a planetary defense demonstration. Next week the Psyche spacecraft will launch to an asteroid by that name in the main asteroid belt between Mars and Jupiter. In November, the Lucy spacecraft enroute to study the Trojan asteroids that share an orbit with Jupiter will make a close approach to an asteroid in the main belt as an engineering test of its navigation system.

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