Following almost half a decade in outer space, NASA's OSIRIS-REx spacecraft is making its way back to planet Earth; and bringing historic samples from the asteroid Bennu. Here are all of the details.
The OSIRIS-REx spacecraft, short for Origins, Spectral Interpretation, Resource Identification, Security, Regolith Explorer, is finally returning after five years on Bennu. But we will have to wait roughly another two-and-a-half years until its arrival since the spacecraft needs to circle the sun twice before reaching Earth, a journey 1.4 billion miles long.
👋 Goodbye, asteroid Bennu! Yesterday, our #OSIRISREx spacecraft took a final image before departing for the journey back to Earth. In 2023, it'll arrive back at our home planet, delivering a sample of rocks & dust captured from the asteroid: https://t.co/Esy6uJMGu0 pic.twitter.com/GN8CqSv7P0— NASA (@NASA) May 11, 2021
If the mission is completed successfully, OSIRIS-REx will bring back NASA's first-ever asteroid sample. "As we leave the asteroid, I'm feeling very proud," Dante Lauretta, the expedition's principal investigator, said. "This team has performed phenomenally. We've learned a lot throughout this whole mission, and now we're looking forward to the final science campaign of sample analysis, which is why I got involved in this program so long ago in the first place."
The team previously completed its most important plan in the middle of the global pandemic. The project's researchers collected at least two ounces of soil from Bennu, 75% of which will be saved for future generations to study. The soil is expected to give insight into the beginnings of our solar system and if asteroids brought the ingredients for life by crashing into Earth.
"OSIRIS-REx's many accomplishments demonstrated the daring and innovative way in which exploration unfolds in real-time," shared NASA Headquarter's associate administrator for science, Thomas Zurbuchen. "The team rose to the challenge, and now we have a primordial piece of our solar system headed back to Earth where many generations of researchers can unlock its secrets." But the trek back will be no easy feat.
Once the spacecraft is roughly 6,000 miles away, the capsule holding the priceless samples will separate from the spacecraft and come into Earth's atmosphere. If the capsule doesn't enter at the perfect angle, it will be in danger of bouncing back into space or burning up from the heat. The sample will land at the Utah Test and Training Range in September 2023 if all goes as planned. We'll be excitedly awaiting what information it brings. In the meantime, you can learn more about OSIRIS-REx's voyage here.