A NASA probe that has spent over two years surveying and collecting samples from an asteroid over 300 million kilometers from Earth has set sail for home.
NASA’s Origins, Spectral Interpretation, Resource Identification, Security, Regolith Explorer (OSIRIS-REx) spacecraft fired its main engines for seven minutes on May 10 at 20:23 UTC. The burn enabled the spacecraft to depart the vicinity of the near-Earth asteroid Bennu at nearly 1,000 kilometers an hour beginning its 2.5-year journey back to Earth.
The OSIRIS-REx spacecraft entered orbit around Bennu on December 31, 2018, after a more than two-year journey from Cape Canaveral in Florida.
Over a period of 28 months in orbit around the near-Earth asteroid, OSIRIS-REx completed a detailed survey of Bennu including acquiring a three-dimensional scan of its entire mass. The highlight of its stay was a dangerous dash to the asteroid’s surface to recover a sample of dirt and stones.
After orbiting the sun twice, OSIRIS-REx is expected to return to Earth on September 24, 2023. Once it’s within a predetermined distance, the spacecraft will release a capsule containing the precious samples. After reentering Earth’s atmosphere, the sample container will deploy a small parachute which will enable it to touchdown safely in the vast expanse of the US Air Force Utah Test and Training Range.
The sample will then be transported to NASA’s Johnson Space Center in Houston for processing and distribution. A fourth of the samples will be distributed to laboratories worldwide. The rest will be stored for future generations to study with technologies that have not yet been invented.
Following sample release, the OSIRIS-REx spacecraft could be assigned to explore a second asteroid. The feasibility of a future mission is expected to be discussed this summer.