How NASA’s OSIRIS-REx spacecraft returned the Bennu sample to Earth.
NASA’s Astronomy Materials Processing Team at Johnson Space Center in Houston has revealed high-resolution images of material from the asteroid Bennu contained within the OSIRIS-REx sampling head. On January 10, they removed two stubborn fasteners that prevented them from opening the TAGSAM head.
TAGSAM’s historic special delivery took seven years and 4 billion miles, landing by parachute at a desert site in Utah before sending an estimated half-pound of rock from a distant asteroid to Houston for study.
The samples were taken from the near-Earth asteroid 101955 Bennu by NASA’s OSIRIS-REx mission, the first American attempt to recover and analyze samples from an asteroid.
The original image was so large that we couldn’t upload it to our content management system, and you can zoom in on images posted on NASA’s website to see more details.
The small OSIRIS-REx rover visited Bennu, scraped and collected material from the asteroid’s surface, and sealed it in a 3-foot-wide container, equipped with a heat shield, called a sample return capsule for delivery to Earth.
The SRC touched down within a 306-square-mile site at the Department of Defense’s Utah Test and Training Range, about 80 miles west of Salt Lake City, at about 11 a.m. EDT.
NASA live broadcast of the landing.
What is OSIRIS-REx?
The spacecraft is powered by solar panels. Five scientific instruments mapped Bennu’s chemistry and mineralogy to determine the effect of sunlight on the asteroid’s orbit.
The cost of the mission, excluding launch, is $800 million.
OSIRIS-REx is an acronym for Origins, Spectral Interpretation, Resource Identification, Security-Regolith Explorer, which was a seven-year mission. Chronology of important events:
- September 8, 2016: launch.
- September 22, 2017: Flying to the ground.
- December 3, 2018: OSIRIS-REx spacecraft arrives at asteroid Bennu.
- December 31, 2019: OSIRIS-REx begins orbiting Bennu.
- October 20, 2020: The sample was successfully collected from Bennu.
- April 7, 2021: The last bridge of Benue.
- May 10, 2021: OSIRIS-REx begins its journey back to Earth.
- September 24, 2023: The sample return capsule landed on Earth.
- January 19, 2024: TAGSAM opened and photographed.
- 2029: OSIRIS-REx begins an expanded mission to the asteroid Apophis.
OSIRIS-REx was flown into space aboard an Atlas V rocket from Cape Canaveral, Florida.
Why did OSIRIS-REx go to Bennu?
Bennu is being studied to better understand other asteroids and their movements through space. The information OSIRIS-REx collects may help develop future technologies to deflect asteroids that threaten to collide with Earth.
Bennu is considered one of the most dangerous near-Earth asteroids in the solar system. It approaches Earth every six years. In 2135, it could pass closer to Earth than the Moon, according to NASA.
Bennu was discovered in 1999 and is believed to be part of a larger asteroid that collided with another space rock. It is about a third of a mile wide and about the height of the Empire State Building.
Its black surface is full of rocks, and it orbits the sun every 14 months.
Carbon-rich Bennu, believed to be a leftover fragment of the formation of the solar system, is a time capsule that may help shed light on the origin of life.
After orbiting the Sun for a year, OSIRIS-REx passed Earth and used its gravitational field as a push toward Bennu.
Is this the first time samples have been taken from an asteroid?
Japan succeeded in collecting microscopic grains from the asteroid Itokawa in 2010 and samples from the asteroid Ryugu in 2019.
A NASA spacecraft carrying solar wind particles collided with the Utah desert and crashed in 2004, compromising the samples. NASA’s capsule containing comet dust landed intact in 2006.
Where will the Bennu samples be analyzed?
Samples from Bennu will be studied in a new laboratory in the Astromaterials Research and Exploration Division, or ARES, at the Johnson Space Center in Houston.
The Johnson Space Center also contains samples of the Moon, meteorites, and orbital debris. The new laboratory will be limited to Bennu samples to avoid cross-contamination with other groups.
Next, the regulatory team will transfer the remaining sample to “wedge-shaped” sample trays.
After photographing, weighing, and packing the trays, they will be stored at Johnson, which houses the largest collection of astronomical materials on Earth. The curatorial team will release a catalog of all specimens later this year which will allow scientists around the world to submit requests for research or display.
OSIRIS-REx fired braking rockets to slow its speed to match Bennu’s. It orbited the asteroid and began a months-long survey in October 2020. Expanded maps, from an altitude of about 3 miles, pinpointed where the sample was taken.
The spacecraft did not land on the asteroid. He got close enough to extend an 11-foot robotic arm and touch the surface for about 5 seconds.
The nitrogen explosion stirred up the surface elements, which were captured by the probe sampling head—a pad about the size of a car air filter—at the end of the arm.
Scientists have discovered that Bennu’s surface is not solid, but rather loosely packed. Instead of bouncing off the surface, the sampling head sank with little resistance.
The sample was stored in the sample return capsule on board.
OSIRIS-REx SRC launched about 63,000 miles from Earth at about 6:42 a.m. EDT. The capsule descended to Earth and landed by parachute at the Test and Training Range in Utah.
What’s next for OSIRIS-REx?
OSIRIS-REx will now travel to Apophis, another near-Earth asteroid, and study it for 18 months. The spacecraft will be renamed OSIRIS-APEX for OSIRIS-APophis EXplorer.
Contributing: Rick Neal and Jimmy Groh, Florida Today
source USA TODAY Reporting and Research Network. NASA; Associated Press; asteroidmission.org, University of Arizona; space.com; planetary.org; spaceflight101.com