Dugway • A NASA capsule that flew more than 200 million miles from the surface of asteroid Bennu and that scientists hope holds clues to the origins of our universe landed in the sand and scrub of Utah’s western desert Sunday morning.
Seven years after the first launch of NASA’s OSIRIS-REx spacecraft from American soil in 2016, the Sample Return Capsule (SRC) landed relatively gently inside the Utah Test and Training Range under the canopy of an orange and white parachute.
The capsule, about the size of a large truck tire, entered Earth’s atmosphere at about 8:40 a.m., traveling faster than 27,000 miles per hour, NASA officials said. Its main parachute, the second of two that slowed the capsule’s approach, deployed about seven minutes later at an altitude of about 20,000 feet above the UTTR – much higher than the 5,000 feet expected by NASA officials.
Five minutes later, the capsule landed to the cheers of a crowd of NASA officials, guests and media who watched the landing live at Dugway Proving Ground.
“It went absolutely perfectly,” OSIRIS-REx principal investigator Dante Lauretta said shortly after returning from examining the capsule in the desert.
“That was the moment I knew we had come home,” he later explained at a press conference.
Lauretta, who is also a professor of planetary science and cosmochemistry at the University of Arizona and has worked on the OSIRIS-REx mission for much of her career, said he “cried like a baby” when he heard the main parachute had opened capsule had opened. That means it would land as planned.
After landing, the capsule – charred black from the heat generated by entering Earth’s atmosphere – was wrapped in a plastic tarp, attached to a long towline and then flown by helicopter from the desert to a makeshift clean room at the Dugway Proving Ground.
There, another team would unpack the capsule and prepare the sample material to be flown by military aircraft to the Johnson Space Center in Houston on Monday. It will be days before scientists can get a look at the actual samples, estimated to be about 8 ounces of rocks and minerals from the asteroid – a hypothesis based on early images and OSIRIS-REx’s response to flight checks based, NASA officials said.
“These samples are an amazing treasure trove for generations,” said Eileen Stansbery, chief scientist at NASA’s Johnson Space Center, at a news conference Saturday afternoon.
On Sunday, she told members of the media that she was “glad to report” that the Bennu sample was “on track” to be flown to Houston. An Air Force C-17 aircraft landed in Dugway Sunday afternoon and was scheduled to depart Monday.
About four hours before the capsule landed, NASA officials voted to release it from the spacecraft, according to a NASA spokesman. The capsule is “alive,” the spokesman said, meaning the batteries packed into the capsule before the spacecraft’s launch in 2016 could deploy its pairs of parachutes.
After dropping the sample capsule toward Utah, OSIRIS-REx — short for Origins Spectral Interpretation Resource Identification Security-Regolith Explorer — was diverted from its years-long journey toward Earth to a new mission: traveling back into space to explore another asteroid investigate.
The successful landing of the sample capsule was the first such mission by the United States.
“The scientist simply starts over again – but the tremendous engineering achievement achieved by this daring spacecraft means that it has done everything it set out to do,” said Jed Hancock, president of the Space Dynamics Laboratory at Utah State University. SDL, an engineering and research laboratory that works with the federal government to develop space and defense technology, developed and tested technology aboard OSIRIS-REx.
“A pile of rubble floating in weightlessness”
The OSIRIS-REx spacecraft, built and designed by Lockheed Martin in Colorado, hasn’t been this close to home in years.
On September 8, 2016, the unmanned space explorer launched from Cape Canaveral Air Force Station in Florida aboard an Atlas V rocket.
A year later, it zoomed around Earth, taking pictures of our planet and calibrating its instruments in preparation for exploring the asteroid Bennu. According to NASA, the flyby was also an opportunity to change OSRIS-REx’s trajectory and put it on a year-long, 200 million-mile route to Bennu.
“The total velocity change due to Earth’s gravity far exceeds the total propellant load of the OSIRIS-REx propulsion system,” Rich Burns, NASA project manager on the mission, said at the time. “So we’re really using our Earth flyby to massively alter OSIRIS-REx’s trajectory, particularly to match the orbital inclination to Bennu.”
On December 3, 2018, the 20-foot-long spacecraft arrived in Bennu, where it would spend the next two and a half years studying the asteroid, which measures about 500 meters in diameter. Before the spacecraft could collect a sample from Bennu, it first had to digitally sketch its topography, and then scientists selected a landing site.
[Read more: Utah right place to land the Bennu asteroid sample, NASA OSIRIS-REx leaders say]
After mapping the asteroid using technology developed and built by Space Dynamics Laboratory, OSIRIS-REx briefly landed on Bennu and collected the first U.S. asteroid sample on October 20, 2020.
But what is Bennu and where does it come from?
“What you really see here is almost like a drop of liquid,” Lauretta told reporters this summer, sharing an image the spacecraft took of the asteroid.
“It is a pile of rubble floating in weightlessness. “So they are boulders, gravel and the result of a cosmic collision about a billion years ago in the main asteroid belt,” Lauretta explained. “Two much, much larger asteroids collided, shattered, and created millions and millions of particles, some of which collapsed back into this pile of debris that you see here today.
Nearly five years after it left Earth, OSIRIS-REx began its flight home in the spring of 2021, en route to delivering what scientists hope will be eight ounces of human understanding about the origins of our existence.
Next mission: OSIRIS-APEX
Earlier this summer, NASA leaders told the media that Utah was the right place to land the sample capsule because of the facilities provided by the Dugway Proving Ground and the Utah Test and Training Range. Additionally, the vast, dry desert along the northwestern border of the Beehive State provides a huge landing area for the capsule.
Capsules from the Genesis and Stardust missions, which collected samples of cometary dust and solar winds, respectively, have also landed at UTTR.
With the drop and return of the OSIRIS-REx sample capsule to Utah’s western desert, the mission to Bennu was largely a success, but the spacecraft’s mission is not yet over.
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As the Bennu sample is packaged for shipment to Houston, the spacecraft begins a new journey to the asteroid Apophis, which is expected to come close to Earth in 2029.
This new mission – now called OSIRIS-APEX for Apophis Explorer – will use the spacecraft’s visual sensors to study Apophis, just as it did Bennu. But with sample return technology now on Earth, the OSIRIS-APEX bonus mission can only fly close to Apophis and send data back to Earth.
Lauretta said it would be “a little bittersweet” as the REx mission transitions to APEX, comparing it to children leaving home. “But I’m really excited about the new adventure that lies ahead.”
Hancock said the Space Dynamics Laboratory never planned another mission, but the Utah-based technology developed for the spacecraft is still operational and prepared for the next adventure.
“Things have just been smooth so far,” Hancock said.