The OSIRIS-REx mission of NASA is returning with the first asteroid sample ever collected

As the OSIRIS-REx spacecraft deploys a capsule containing pieces of the potentially dangerous object Bennu onto Earth, NASA is getting ready to collect its first ever asteroid sample.

The Origins, Spectral Interpretation, Resource Identification, Security, Regolith Explorer, or OSIRIS-REx, was launched in 2016 and it took it two years to get to Bennu. It studied the surface of the rhombus-shaped asteroid for two years before to its rendezvous in order to select the ideal location for landing and gathering regolith.

It approached the asteroid in 2020 and collected more debris than was anticipated. The spaceship carefully placed the granules within its sample return capsule before reentering Earth’s atmosphere. It’s finally delivering its scientific payload now, seven years later.

Evidently, NASA doesn’t have a Prime membership.

As it passes over Earth on September 24, OSIRIS-REx will launch its sample return capsule. At 0842 MDT (1542 UTC), the object will slam into Earth and reenter the atmosphere at a speed of 27,650 miles per hour. It will drop a parachute to slow down and land in the Utah desert after roughly two minutes.

A mock sample capsule was dropped from an aeroplane to test its ability to land at a drop zone within the Department of Defense’s Utah Test and Training Range on Wednesday by representatives of NASA collaborating with the US military as part of the final dress rehearsal for the return trip.

“We are now mere weeks away from receiving a piece of solar system history on Earth, and this successful drop test ensures we’re ready,” Nicola Fox, associate administrator of NASA’s Science Mission Directorate, declared in a statement. “Pristine material from asteroid Bennu will help shed light on the formation of our solar system 4.5 billion years ago, and perhaps even on how life on Earth began.”

The capsule, which might contain up to 250 grammes of regolith, will be carefully recovered when it touches down on Earth and sent to a clean chamber on the military range.

The capsule will be taken apart and transported to NASA’s Johnson Space Centre in Houston, where the sample will be recorded, kept, and made available to researchers all around the world. NASA’s first asteroid return mission is called OSIRIS-REx.

The first space rock collection was carried out by the Japanese Aerospace Exploration Agency’s Hayabusa mission to 25143 Itokawa between 2003 and 2010.

Asteroids are believed to be pieces of material that were left over after the planets in the solar system formed. Understanding their characteristics and chemical composition, according to astronomers, would shed light on how the planets and even life on Earth were generated.

OSIRIS-REx will start a new chapter after launching its capsule. The second mission of the spacecraft, known as OSIRIS-APEX, has a new target: Apophis, another potentially dangerous object that would likely pass quite close to Earth in 2029. This time, OSIRIS-APEX will spend 18 months closely watching Apophis rather than taking a sample.

“Apophis is one of the most infamous asteroids,” said Dani DellaGiustina, an assistant professor at the University of Arizona and principal investigator of OSIRIS-APEX. “When it was first discovered in 2004, there was concern that it would impact the Earth in 2029 during its close approach. That risk was retired after subsequent observations, but it will be the closest an asteroid of this size has gotten in the 50 or so years asteroids have been closely tracked, or for the next 100 years of asteroids we have discovered so far.”

“It gets within one-tenth the distance between the Earth and Moon during the 2029 encounter. People in Europe and Africa will be able to see it with the naked eye, that’s how close it will get. We were stoked to find out the mission was extended,” she said.