Scientists researching Bennu

NASA launches a space package from 63,000 miles up

NASA scientists awaiting the return of the OSIRIS-Rex spacecraft will greet it with more gray hair and wrinkles than when it left the launchpad.

An unmanned spacecraft has traveled 4.4 billion miles through space over the past seven years in an attempt to visit a near-Earth asteroid. The robot arrived at its destination, Bennu, and collected gravel — probably about a cupful — in October 2020.

Now that the spacecraft is closing in on Earth, the team will try to bring the sample all the way home by dropping the capsule 63,000 miles above the planet – about a third of the distance from Earth to the moon. The land target is only 250 miles away, in the high desert of Utah.

“It’s the equivalent of throwing a spear the length of a basketball court and hitting the bull’s eye,” said Rich Burns, NASA project manager.

If successful, OSIRIS-Rex will be the first US mission to return an asteroid sample.


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What is the purpose of the OSIRIS-Rex mission?

NASA’s $800 million OSIRIS-Rex mission stands for Origin, Spectral Interpretation, Resource Chongification, and Security Regolith Explorer. The robotic spacecraft launched in 2016 from Cape Canaveral, Florida, and is the first US mission to retrieve an asteroid sample and return it to Earth for laboratory studies. The asteroid is known as Bennu.

Since the Apollo moon rocks, which were collected between 1969 and 1972, NASA has brought back space memorabilia of this size. The Japanese space agency, JAXA, on the other hand, brought back small samples of the asteroid twice, from Itokawa and Ryugu.

Mission control, where commands are sent to the spacecraft—including the sequence of paths necessary to deliver the sample to Earth—is based at Lockheed Martin in Littleton, Colorado.

Scientists researching Bennu

Bennu, a near-Earth asteroid, has a very small chance of hitting Earth in the next century.
Credit: NASA Goddard Space Flight Center / University of Arizona

“It’s the equivalent of throwing a dart the length of a basketball court and hitting the bulls-eye.”

What is Bennu?

Bennu, named after an ancient Egyptian bird god, is an asteroid discovered in 1999. It is a little more than 1,600 meters wide, or about the size of the Empire State Building. Carbon-rich space rock is droplet-shaped and composed of gravel and unconsolidated rock due to its low density.

“I like to think of Bennu as a small mountain floating in space,” said Dante Lauretta, the team’s principal scientist, who is based at the University of Arizona.

Bennu earned the nickname “the trickster asteroid” because it distracted the team during every challenge. Scientists believed that when the spacecraft touched down to collect a sample three years ago, it would encounter a solid surface. Instead, the asteroid reacted to the spacecraft like liquid, or a child’s ball pit.

Bennu was chosen for the mission because it is rich in carbon, which means it may contain the chemical origins of life. It also has a small chance of hitting Earth in the next century. Learning about the asteroid could be useful in future attempts to deflect it, should that become necessary. Bennu is also considered an ideal location for asteroids because every few years it crosses the Earth’s orbit around the sun, making it easier to reach than other asteroids.

Why did NASA collect the asteroid sample?

NASA scientists are interested in studying asteroids, debris left over from our solar system 4.6 billion years ago. These ancient rocks — or “grandfather rocks,” as one of the team put it — could provide clues about how the entire solar system evolved.

By examining the Bennu sample, the team is poised to answer big questions, such as how did life form, and why did life appear on Earth? Scientists still don’t fully understand how to get simple carbon molecules, like natural gas methane, to complex ones, like amino acids that make proteins and nucleic acids that make genes, Lauretta said.

Hundreds of scientists and 60 labs around the world will be involved in analyzing sample particles upon its return. Although they’re not sure what they’ll find in the canister, they’re not expecting any small immigrants.

“As far as whether or not it has biotic properties, that’s a small thing,” Lauretta said.

Osiris-Rex image of Bennu

Bennu is drop-shaped and made up of gravel and unconsolidated rocks due to its light weight.
Credit: NASA Goddard Space Flight Center / University of Arizona

OSIRIS-Rex is a replica capsule for parachuting down to earth

Parachutes will slow the capsule from 27,650 to 11 kilometers per hour before it reaches the ground.
Credit: NASA/Keegan Barber

When will the OSIRIS-Rex sample come back?

Bennu’s gravel cup will return to the capsule shortly after re-entry, at 10:42 am on September 24th. But four hours before the package breaks through Earth’s atmosphere, flight controllers will decide whether to continue separating the capsule from its spacecraft, based on personal safety, capsule survival, and landing accuracy criteria.

After the spacecraft releases the capsule about 63,000 kilometers from Earth, it will travel in space for 20 minutes before firing its balls to intercept Earth. At that time, it will begin its extended mission to another asteroid. If all goes well, the spacecraft will reach Apophis in 2029.

If for some reason the flight controllers vote “no-go” on the landing, the capsule will stay with the spacecraft as it flies past Earth. In two years, the team can get another chance to leave the package.

The recovery team is practicing the OSIRIS-Rex return sample

The recovery team used the OSIRIS-Rex mission recovery and capsule replica.
Credit: NASA/Keegan Barber

Where will the OSIRIS-Rex capsule sit?

The OSIRIS-Rex capsule will land at the military’s Utah Test and Training Range, southwest of Salt Lake City. It will then be taken by helicopter to a clean room at Dugway Proving Ground, the largest and most isolated military facility in the continental United States. The installation is designed to test chemical and biological weapons, as well as other weapons of war.

It’s a perfect place for something to fall from the sky: No souls are around to be harmed by the falling projectile, except for the cattle and wild animals that roam about 2.3 million hectares.

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The recovery team is training in the desert

With no one around for hundreds of miles, a military base in the Utah desert is a safe place to try to drop a sample.
Credit: NASA/Keegan Barber

“It’s a great place to get a sample,” Burns said. “Why? Because it’s so big. Its sky is really amazing.”

“Its sky is mind-boggling, really.”

Parachutes will slow the capsule from 27,650 to 11 kilometers per hour before it reaches the ground. At high speed, the capsule, protected by a heat shield, will be surrounded by a fireball. The Air Force will use radar and cameras to determine its exact location for the recovery team.

After the capsule is transported by helicopter to a clean room at the base, the team will give it a so-called “nitrogen purge,” a method of replacing unwanted gas and moisture in a nitrogen-containing system. The next day, the capsule will fly on a C-17 aircraft to NASA’s Johnson Space Center in Houston for initial lab analysis. The team will separate pieces of the sample and send them to researchers around the world.

A diagram representing the return period of OSIRIS-Rex

The OSIRIS-Rex spacecraft will release the capsule 63,000 kilometers from Earth into space.
Credit: Lockheed Martin

How to watch the OSIRIS-Rex return sample

If you do not have a special permit to enter the army list, you will not have the opportunity to see this event yourself, although some journalists will be allowed on the base to watch the activities from a distance. The place itself is so big that you don’t know where to wait and watch the parachuting package. And there is no place to see this scene unfold outside of the list.

But viewers will be able to watch some of the action from home. NASA plans to broadcast live coverage of the return of OSIRIS-Rex on its website and Youtube beginning at 10 a.m. ET (or 7 a.m. MST, local time in Utah) on September 24. The capsule is expected to enter Earth’s atmosphere at 10:42 a.m. ET and land about 13 minutes later.

“One thing we tend to do is anthropomorphize the spacecraft. ‘Remember when we (collected)? Remember when we were orbiting?’ Burns said. “Our little one is on this spaceship, and our little one is coming home.”

#NASA #launches #space #package #miles

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