NASA braces for all weather as OSIRIS-REx asteroid sampler lands in Utah desert

NASA braces for all weather as OSIRIS-REx asteroid sampler lands in Utah desert

NASA’s first asteroid sample will be blasted to Earth, regardless of how the concept looks, but the OSIRIS-REx team will work closely with the US Army meteorologists in Utah to plan all the weather conditions, to ensure that the precious sample is carefully collected.

OSIRIS-REx stands for Origin, Spectral Interpretation, Resource Identification, and Security-Regolith Explorer. The spacecraft is scheduled to drop about 9 ounces of rock and debris collected on asteroid Bennu in 2020.

The tire-sized capsule carrying the precious site’s dirt will land on September 24 at the Department of Defense’s Utah Test and Training Range, about 80 miles from Salt Lake City. Unlike the Crew Dragon spacecraft that returns astronauts to Earth from the International Space Station, the sampler returns from deep space and cannot shake off in the landing attempt.

“They can decide, are we ready to go in? Are the conditions good? Oh, the weather is bad. Let’s wait a few days,” OSIRIS-REx Deputy Project Manager Michael Moreau said of Crew Dragon. “We’re going in at 12.3 kilometers per second. If we don’t eject that capsule properly, then the spacecraft and the capsule will fly to earth, and it’s bye-bye. That’s what rain or shine is like.”

OSIRIS-REx is dropping a critical package more than seven years after it was launched in Florida in September 2016, which is why the arrival date is not negotiable.


“The Earth joins the orbit of Bennu around the solar system around the 24th of September every year. So it is the intersection of the main road where if you want to send something between the Earth and Bennu, it must go and return on that day,” said Moreau.

Preparation of sludge and air

This is the first asteroid sample to return to the West Desert Test Center, but not the first celestial object to return. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention also predicted the Stardust comet sample for NASA in 2006.

September presents unique forecasting challenges as the Utah desert transitions from summer to the tail end of the Southwest Monsoon season, said Eric Nelson, who is on the meteorology team at the West Desert Test Center at the US Army Dugway Proving Ground in Utah.

Among the things that concern the capsule is the possibility of rain and, as a result, mud.

A half-inch of rain could create muddy conditions at the former lake, not too far from what festival-goers experienced at Burning Man in Nevada last week.

“If you get a large amount, half an inch to an inch of rain before the arrival date, then the playa will definitely be muddy. But even if you get a series of small rains leading up to that, that can be enough to filter the playa and make it very difficult to low traffic out into the area,” Nelson said.

In the weeks leading up to the arrival, Nelson said he didn’t see an exceptional amount of rain in the forecast models. Still, the OSIRIS-REx team has to prepare everything. The sample is loaded into the sample collection head on OSIRIS-REx and placed into another sample canister inside the capsule. The capsule has air filters to help with some dust, but getting too much water in the capsule will not be good.

“We’re trying to protect it from the outside. If it sits in six inches of water, there’s a chance that water can’t get into the capsule. It can’t make it all the way to the sample, but that’s the situation we have to prepare for,” Moreau said.

The goal is to get the capsule from the field to a clean room in about 2 hours, to put it in a nitrogen purge to protect the sample.

Wind is another hazard for stopping asteroid sampling. The tire-sized capsule will return to deep space at 27,500 mph; after blasting through Earth’s atmosphere, parachutes will slow the capsule down.

According to Nelson, ideal wind speeds would be less than 10 mph based on parachute testing. In addition, it is possible that the parachute will blow.


“The main chute will open about 5,000 feet above the ground, and that’s where the winds will have the biggest effect on the capsule,” Nelson said. “We will monitor our wind profiler data and other weather stations that we have on the mountaintops here in Dugway and be able to notify recovery teams that the general wind flow is in a certain direction.”

If physical objects in the capsule are lost, this information will help the recovery team better understand where the spirits may have taken the capsule.

Forecasters with the Western Desert Observatory will release weather balloons prior to landing to measure winds and aloft humidity and provide cloud deck information to recovery pilots.

“Our main goal is to inform recovery workers and keep them safe and give them as much information as they need to do their job,” Nelson said.

After landing, Nelson said NASA requested another balloon launch to confirm the re-entry path estimate and see how well their trajectory models did in predicting the actual landing time.

Quidditch, anyone?

OSIRIS-REx has two opportunities to drive the capsule into its correct Earth trajectory; the first takes place on September 10 and, if necessary, another one about a week before arrival.

“Imagine a Quidditch hoop or something like that, it’s a mile wide, and the capsule has to go through this window, and then it’s going to land on the right foot that we came with,” Moreau said of the fictional game. from Harry Potter.


Several tracking vehicles and spacecraft will be used to follow the capsule after it separates from OSIRIS-REx.

First, ground-based telescopes will track the spacecraft, then the Air Force Base tracking station in Maui will look for the small, faint object after separation. Radar tracking antennas at the Utah Test and Training Range will monitor the capsule as it approaches Earth. Infrared cameras should first detect the capsule’s hot trail as it blasts through Earth’s atmosphere. DoD cameras and radar will continue to follow it before the recovery helicopters follow the deployment of the parachute and, finally, the landing.

“So many different views and everything from tracking a small spot of light to this 4K image of the parachute right before landing,” Moreau said.

Meanwhile, the OSIRIS-REx spacecraft will continue to study asteroid Apophis when it flies by Earth in 2029.

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