NASA spacecraft begins 2-year journey home with asteroid samples


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NASA’s OSIRIS-REx spacecraft began its historic 2-year mission back to Earth after collecting samples from asteroid Bennu on May 10, 2021. This is NASA’s first asteroid sample return mission and it carries a generous amount of rubble  collected from the near-Earth asteroid.

The NASA spacecraft bid farewell to its asteroid companion after spending two-and-a-half years together. Bennu, the 4.5 billion-year-old skyscraper-sized asteroid is around 320 million km from the Earth.

NASA had sent the OSIRIS-REx spacecraft to the asteroid to survey the surface, collect samples and deliver them back to Earth. The spacecraft had reached asteroid Bennu in 2018 and spent two years flying near and around it, before collecting asteroid rubble from the surface last year. 

Key Highlights 

At 4:16 pm ET, the OSIRIS-REx control room at Lockheed Martin in Colorado received a signal from the spacecraft that it had fired thrusters to remove itself from an established orbit around Bennu.

•The departure sequence was a huge step for the spacecraft. The thruster burn lasted for seven minutes. 

•The thrusters had to shift the spacecraft’s velocity by 958 kilometers per hour to put it on course to catch up with Earth. 

•The spacecraft is currently moving away from Bennu at over 600 mph and is expected to swing by Earth on September 24, 2023 and drop the sample at the Utah Test and Training Range. 

•The sample contains 2.1 ounces of material that was collected from asteroid Bennu’s surface.

•If the spacecraft continues to remain in good health then, it will be sent on a new expedition to study other asteroids.

Why will it take the spacecraft two years to reach Earth?

NASA’s OSIRIS-REx is currently 291 million miles away from Earth. It is scheduled to orbit Sun twice and then 1.4 billion miles to catch up with the Earth and return the sample. 

Historic Milestones of OSIRIS-REx Spacecraft

•The OSIRIS-REx spacecraft was launched from Cape Canaveral in Florida in September 2016. The spacecraft’s name OSIRIS-REx stands for Origins, Spectral Interpretation, Resource Identification, Security, Regolith Explorer.

•It was the first NASA mission to a near-Earth asteroid and it performed the closest orbit of a planetary body by a spacecraft. 

•Bennu also became the smallest object to be orbited by a spacecraft.

•OSIRIS-REx arrived for its first close look at Bennu in December 2018, during which it surveyed the asteroid to determine the best location to collect a sample.

•The close views of the asteroid gave the mission team deep insights about the asteroid such as:

-Discovery of water ice locked within Bennu’s rocks

-Discovery of carbon in a form that is largely associated with biology

•The mission team also witnessed particles from the asteroid releasing into space.

•Then the spacecraft conducted the historic Touch-and-Go sample collection on October 20, 2020. 

•There were a number of challenges that threatened the success of the mission but the team was able to meet and overcome these challenges.

•One of the challenges was that the sample collection head on the spacecraft had collected so much material that the container couldn’t seal properly, leaking precious asteroid material into space.

•The spacecraft is now on its journey back home with the largest sample collected by a NASA mission since lunar rocks that were brought back by Apollo astronauts.

•A final flyby of Bennu was organised in April to survey how OSIRIS-REx disturbed and altered the surface of the asteroid during the collection event. The pictures taken before and after the sample collection event showed some intriguing differences.

Significance of the Mission 

•The samples will be studied to get more information about the formation and history of our solar system and also about the role that asteroids played in helping develop habitable planets like Earth. 

•It will also help understand more about the population of near-Earth asteroids like Bennu that may be on an eventual collision course with Earth. 

•A better grasp of their composition and orbits will help in predicting which asteroids may have the closest approaches to Earth and when. It will also help in developing methods of deflecting these asteroids.

•Scientists believe that asteroids like Bennu had crashed into Earth early during its formation, delivering elements like water.

Bennu Asteroid

•Bennu is a carbonaceous asteroid in the Apollo group, which was discovered by the LINEAR Project on 11 September 1999. 

•It is listed as a potentially hazardous object, as it has a cumulative 1-in-2,700 chance of impacting Earth between 2175 and 2199.

•The asteroid has been named after the ancient Egyptian mythological bird – Bennu, which is associated with the Sun, creation and rebirth.

 





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