How NASA Prepares for an Asteroid Model Landing in the Desert

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A sample of an asteroid placed on a NASA spacecraft is about to reach Earth About 2½ years in space.

This is the first time NASA has collected and returned an asteroid sample from space.

With A A sample of the asteroid Ryugu was returned earlier From Japan’s Hayabusa2 mission, rocks and soil could reveal insights into the beginnings of our solar system.

Instead of coming in for a landing, the OSIRIS-REx mission will drop off a sample of rocks and soil and continue its journey to study another asteroid.

Teams are rehearsing how to recover the first sample collected from the near-Earth asteroid Bennu when it lands in the Utah desert on September 24.

OSIRIS-REx is estimated to have collected 8.8 ounces, or about 1 cup, of material from Bennu.

NASA/Goddard/University of Arizona

Bennu is a debris pile asteroid shaped like a spinning top, made of gravitationally bound rocks. It is about a third of a mile (500 meters) wide.

“We’re now only a few weeks away from making solar system history on Earth, and this successful drop test ensures we’re ready,” Nicola Fox, associate administrator of NASA’s Science Mission Directorate, said in a statement. “Old material from the asteroid Bennu could help shed light on the formation of our solar system 4.5 billion years ago and perhaps how life began on Earth.”

Every day a spacecraft launches a capsule above the planet carrying a rare asteroid sample and intends to deliver it safely to a specific landing site.

Years of hard work by tens of thousands of people led to the moment when the Bennu model came to earth.

During the spring and summer, teams practiced retrieving a model capsule and ran through all the scenarios, good and bad, that could happen on a reentry day.

Keegan Barber/NASA

The capsule will land at the Department of Defense’s Utah Test and Training Range.

The original goal of this mission was to recover a pristine asteroid sample. But if the capsule is broken and opened, the sample may become contaminated.

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“I am very proud of our team’s efforts in this endeavor,” Dante Lauretta, OSIRIS-REx principal investigator at the University of Arizona in Tucson, said in a statement.

OSIRIS-REx, which stands for Origins, Spectral Interpretation, Resource Identification, Security, and Regolith Explorer, is NASA’s first asteroid sample return mission. The spacecraft has been on a seven-year journey. After launching in 2016, OSIRIS-REx began orbiting Bennu in 2018. The sample was collected in 2020 Departs on its long return trip to Earth in May 2021.

Since leaving Bennu, the spacecraft has circled the Sun twice so it can get on the right track to rendezvous with Earth.

In July, the spacecraft launched a series of maneuvers to help target the landing site for the capsule at the Department of Defense’s Utah Test and Training Range outside Salt Lake City.

On September 24, NASA presented a Live stream Model given to Earth. The live stream will begin at 10 a.m. ET, and the capsule containing the sample will enter Earth’s atmosphere at 10:42 a.m. ET, traveling at 27,650 miles per hour (44,498 kilometers per hour).

About four hours before the capsule’s atmospheric entry, the mission team will decide whether to send a command to the spacecraft to release the capsule, said Rich Burns, Osiris-Rex program manager at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Maryland.

Keegan Barber/NASA

A training sample of the sample return capsule is seen during a drop test. Parachutes slow the capsule’s descent.

This decision depends on the trajectory of the spacecraft, which determines the safety of humans within the landing zone, the capsule’s ability to maintain angle, re-entry temperature and landing accuracy. The capsule will be released when OSIRIS-REx is 63,000 miles (102,000 kilometers) from Earth, heading toward an area of ​​250 square miles (647.5 square kilometers) — “the equivalent of hitting a dart the length of a basketball court. Bull’s-eye,” Burns said.

Once the capsule is released, OSIRIS-REx will target another asteroid and make a diversionary maneuver that will set it in orbit around the Sun. ApophisFor a meeting in 2029, Burns said.

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Entering Earth’s atmosphere, the capsule will be surrounded by a superhot fire, but the container’s thermal shield will protect the sample inside.

Parachutes will be used to slow the capsule down to 11 miles per hour (17.7 kilometers per hour), and rescue teams will stand by to recover the capsule safely, said Sandra Freund, OSIRIS-REx. The program manager at Lockheed Martin Space partnered with NASA to build the spacecraft, provide flight operations and recover the capsule.

Landing is expected after 13 minutes The capsule enters Earth’s atmosphere.

Keegan Barber/NASA

Rescue teams participate in a helicopter exercise to retrieve the sample and transport it to a temporary cleanup room.

A helicopter will carry the sample in a cargo net and deliver it to a temporary clearinghouse installed at the range in June. There, a team will prepare the sample container for transport on a C-17 flight to NASA’s Johnson Space Center in Houston on September 25. Details about the model will be revealed to the public via a NASA broadcast from Johnson on October 11.

Teams at NASA and Lockheed Martin Space have rehearsed every possible step to prepare for delivery day, Freund said.

Recently, the team used an aircraft to bring down the sample capsule, collect it and prepare it for transport.

Molly Wasser/NASA

The OSIRIS-REx team conducted its final rehearsal on August 30, dropping a mock capsule from 7,000 feet above the ground by helicopter. Infra-red, radar and optical instruments on the ground and in aircraft carried out tracking of the capsule’s descent.

It worked through challenging scenarios from the command center, such as what to do if the spacecraft reboots, how to bring it out of safe mode, and how to switch communications between different centers if the network goes down.

The team has also prepared for different landing scenarios, such as a hard landing where the capsule containing the model opens unexpectedly. The team will assess whether any sample can be saved.

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Another possibility is that the spacecraft may not release the model on Sept. 24 if landing within range is not possible, Burns said. In that scenario, the sample would remain on board, and the spacecraft’s orbit would bring the capsule Back by Earth to attempt another launch over Utah in 2025.

The Johnson Space Center has a history of storing, handling and analyzing extraterrestrial materials, including lunar samples from the Apollo missions. OSIRIS-REx Deputy Superintendent Kevin Reiter said NASA has worked for years to build a special facility at Johnson to sample Bennu.

A dedicated cleanroom will prevent potential cross-contamination with other collections as scientists analyze the soil and rocks over the next two years. Few objects are smaller than sand, Christopher Snead, Small Particle Handler Lead and the OSIRIS-REx subobserver at Johnson.

“We are developing custom equipment to carefully handle these precious particles inside our new glove boxes,” Snead said in a statement, referring to boxes for managing hazardous or extraterrestrial materials.


In a new clean room at NASA’s Johnson Space Center, researchers will use glove boxes to carefully handle the sample.

The model will reveal information about the formation and history of our solar system and the role of asteroids in helping create habitable planets like Earth. Scientists believe that asteroids like Bennu collided with Earth during its formation, providing elements such as water.

The sample will be separated and sent to laboratories around the world, including OSIRIS-REx mission partners at the Canadian Space Agency and the Japanese Aerospace Exploration Agency. About 70% of the samples remain intact in storage, so future generations with better technology can learn more than is possible now.

“Asteroids remain in our solar system today “From the early stages of the Solar System’s history,” Lauretta said. “We’re actually seeing geological objects that formed before Earth existed. I call these grandfather rocks and really reflect our origins and where we came from. It is a gift to the world.”

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