NASA Transports Mock Asteroid Sample as It Prepares for OSIRIS-REx Return

NASA Transports Mock Asteroid Sample as It Prepares for OSIRIS-REx Return

After landing on an asteroid nearly three years ago to scoop up a sample from its rocky surface, the OSIRIS-REx mission is finally in the homestretch. NASA is preparing for the special delivery of the rocky sample next month and the agency just pulled off the most realistic rehearsal for the big day.

From July 18 to 20, the team behind the mission practised the recovery of a mock sample return capsule at the Department of Defense’s Utah Test and Training Range, the same location where the OSIRIS-REx spacecraft will drop off the real asteroid sample, NASA wrote in a blog post.

The OSIRIS-REx spacecraft is scheduled to drop off the sample from asteroid Bennu on September 24. The plan is for the spacecraft to drop off its precious cargo during its flyby, after which the capsule containing the asteroid samples will perform a parachute-assisted landing in the Utah desert. The capsule has to land within a 59 km by 15 km ellipse about 13 minutes after it is released by the spacecraft, but that’s not even the hard part.

Once it touches down on Earth, ground teams must move swiftly to transport the sample to a clean room to avoid it getting contaminated by material from our planet (which would spoil the whole mission). Therefore, the pressure is on to make this a seamless process.

Photo: NASA/Keegan Barber.

About 80 miles (128 kilometers) southwest of Salt Lake City, the team behind the mission collected soil samples from the desert to place in a mock capsule similar to the one that holds the asteroid sample. Members of the team then practiced packing the mock sample capsule for a helicopter ride that will transport it to a temporary clean room.

Photo: NASA/Keegan Barber.

Once it was packed, a helicopter picked up the mock capsule to practice the brief flight to the temporary clean room located on site at the military range.

The recovery crews will also collect soil and air samples around the capsule’s landing area to help identify if any contaminants may have come in contact with the asteroid sample.

This is NASA’s first attempt at retrieving a sample from an asteroid and it’s been a long time in the making. OSIRIS-REx launched on September 8, 2016 and rendezvoused with near-Earth asteroid Bennu in October 2020. After snagging a piece of the asteroid, OSIRIS-REx began making its way back home. By bringing the asteroid sample to Earth, scientists will be able to analyze the space rock closely to help uncover clues as to how life may have originated on Earth and whether asteroids carried the building blocks of life to our planet.

After OSIRIS-REx drops off its Bennu sample to Earth, the spacecraft will go off on another adventure to explore asteroid Apophis in 2029.

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