NASA spacecraft that grabbed an asteroid sample heads back to Earth today


It came, it surveyed, it swiped.

NASA

After a few years hanging out with and even chest-bumping potentially hazardous asteroid Bennu, NASA’s Osiris-Rex is saying goodbye Monday and returning to Earth.

The Origins, Spectral Interpretation, Resource Identification, Security, Regolith Explorer was the agency’s first spacecraft to visit a near-Earth asteroid, survey its surface and swipe a sample to bring back home for scientists to study.

It now begins the final phase of a long journey that started with its launch from Cape Canaveral, Florida, on September 8, 2016. With the firing of its thrusters for seven minutes Monday afternoon, Osiris-Rex moves away from its orbit around Bennu to set a new course for Earth. More precisely, it aims to return the 2.1 ounce (60 gram) sample it collected from Bennu for an airdrop at the Utah Test and Training Range on Sept. 24, 2023.

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Osiris-Rex follows in the cosmic footsteps of Japan’s Hayabusa2 craft, which recently returned a sample of the asteroid Ryugu to Earth.

The path back to our planet for Osiris-Rex is not a straight line. To get home and enter an orbit around Earth in preparation for the sample return capsule to enter the atmosphere, the spacecraft will wind up circling the sun twice and travel 1.4 billion miles (2.3 billion kilometers).

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The sample now being transported from deep space to the Utah desert is the largest space souvenir collected by a NASA mission since Apollo astronauts brought moon rocks home for study.

Only a small portion of the sample will be used in research right away. Bits will be sent to labs worldwide, but 75% will set aside to be studied by future scientists using fancy new technologies that don’t even exist yet. Start developing your research plans now, kids!

You can watch live as mission leaders confirm Osiris-Rex is on its way via the NASA TV feed below, starting at 1 p.m. PT Monday.

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