This weekend, a NASA spacecraft carrying a sample of hard material that was taken three years ago from the surface of an asteroid hurtled toward Earth on its way to a blazing ascent through the atmosphere and a Sunday parachute landing in the Utah desert.
The robotic spacecraft OSIRIS-REx was on target to release the sample-return capsule for final descent as planned and no more changes to its flight path were required, NASA officials said at a news briefing on Friday. The weather predictions were good.
According to Sandra Freund, program manager at Lockheed Martin, the company that designed and built the spacecraft, mission management are anticipating a “spot-on” touchdown on the expansive Utah Test and Training range operated by the US military, west of Salt Lake City.
The seven-year journey will come to an end when the round, gumdrop-shaped capsule touches down by parachute at 10:55 a.m. EDT (1455 GMT), just 13 minutes after flying into space at almost 35 times the speed of sound.
The OSIRIS-REx mission, a collaboration between NASA and researchers at the University of Arizona, would be the third asteroid sample to be successfully returned to Earth for analysis, and it would be by far the largest. This would follow two comparable efforts by Japan’s space agency over the previous 13 years.
Bennu, a carbon-rich asteroid identified in 1999 and categorized as a “near-Earth object” since it comes relatively close to our planet every six years, is where OSIRIS-REx obtained its sample. The likelihood of it hitting Earth in the late 22nd century is estimated by scientists to be 1 in 2,700.
Bennu is a minor asteroid by asteroids standards, having a diameter of approximately 1,600 feet (500 meters). It is marginally wider than the Empire State Building and far shorter than the Chicxulub asteroid, which devastated Earth 66 million years ago and wiped out the dinosaurs.
Bennu is an ancient asteroid, like other asteroids, that formed roughly 4.5 billion years ago. Its current chemistry and minerals remain almost unchanged from its formation. It therefore contains important hints about the formation and evolution of rocky planets like Earth, and it may even have organic molecules that are similar to those required for the emergence of life.
The mission’s chief investigator at the University of Arizona, Tucson, Dante Lauretta, told reporters last month that “we’re literally looking at geologic materials that formed before Earth even existed.”
After being launched in September 2016 and arriving at Bennu in 2018, OSIRIS-REx spent almost two years orbiting the asteroid before getting close enough to engage in a grab-and-go maneuver on October 20, 2020.