NASA's OSIRIS-REx asteroid sample return mission, valued at $1 billion, is rapidly approaching its landing in the Utah desert in the United States of America.
The spacecraft, named OSIRIS-REx (Origins, Spectral Interpretation, Resource Identification, Security-Regolith Explorer), is en route to Earth carrying a precious cargo of around 250 gram of material collected from asteroid Bennu in 2020.
Studying the sample can help scientists understand key details about the origins of our solar system because asteroids are the “leftovers” from those early days 4.5 billion years ago.
The capsule containing the collected material will be released by the OSIRIS-REx spacecraft at an altitude of about 101,000 km above Earth.
It is expected to touch down at the US Department of Defense's remote Utah Test and Training Range (UTTR) on Sunday (24 September) at 8.55 am local time.
In preparation for the capsule's return, OSIRIS-REx mission managers held a briefing on Friday (22 September) to discuss the final preparations and assess the spacecraft's current condition.
Sandra Freund, the programme manager at Lockheed Martin, expressed the excitement within the team, stating, ""Everybody really feels a buzz of being less than two days away from having the Bennu samples on the ground,"
She also expressed confidence in the mission's success, highlighting the exceptional navigation and performance of the spacecraft.
Earlier on 17 September, the OSIRIS-REx spacecraft completed its final maneuver, precisely aligning it with its course towards Earth.
Freund confirmed that no additional maneuver opportunities were required.
"The spacecraft trajectory and performance has just been spot on," she said.
The spacecraft will need to adjust its orientation to release the asteroid sample capsule accurately.
Mission planners will hold a meeting on Sunday morning to decide whether capsule release is feasible.
The OSIRIS-REx team leaders are confident in the success of the mission based on its progress so far.
Attention to detail and consideration of all possible contingencies have contributed to the mission's success.
For instance, measures would be taken to quickly identify and recover any sample material that may have landed on the Utah desert floor if the sample capsule were to open briefly.
During the briefing, the mission leaders discussed an issue that occurred in October 2020 when the OSIRIS-REx spacecraft's sample collector malfunctioned and lost some material in space.
However, the Lockheed Martin team, responsible for building the spacecraft, found a solution, and the OSIRIS-REx scientists were able to estimate the mass of the collected asteroid material to be around 250 grams, with a margin of error of plus or minus 101 grams.
This estimation is good news as it surpasses the mission requirement of bringing back 60 grams. Even at the lower end of the estimate, the mission is well above its target, said Dante Lauretta, the principal investigator of the OSIRIS-REx mission.
If the capsule successfully lands on the desert floor, it will be met by U.S. Air Force personnel who will ensure the safety of the landing site. Recovery teams will then take over the process. The capsule will be collected by a Department of Defense helicopter and immediately transported to a temporary clean room at Dugway Proving Ground.
Dugway is a US Army installation responsible for testing chemical and biological defense equipment.
Once inside the cleanroom at Dugway, the capsule will be opened and the canister containing the samples of asteroid Bennu will be prepared for transport once again.
These samples will be flown to NASA's Johnson Space Center (JSC) in Houston, Texas. At JSC, a newly-built facility called the Astromaterials Research and Exploration Science (ARES) division will be waiting to receive the samples.
At JSC, the capsule hardware itself will be curated. According to Glaze, the hardware may also be made available for "space-exposed hardware studies, or other similar kinds of scientific or public uses." This means that the hardware could be utilised for various scientific or public purposes.
Assuming everything goes as planned, the OSIRIS-REx team will spend two years analszing the material brought back from Bennu.
This analysis could provide valuable insights into the role of carbon-rich asteroids like Bennu in seeding Earth with the building blocks of life.
It could also help scientists gain a better understanding of the earliest eras of our solar system.
To facilitate the study of the asteroid material, over 200 researchers at 35 different facilities will be granted access to 25 per cent of the material retrieved from Bennu.
According to NASA's official OSIRIS-REx press kit, 70 per cent of the material will be kept at Johnson Space Center for future study.
Scientists in the future, using yet-to-be-invented technologies, will explore this material to find answers to fundamental questions about the solar system.
The remaining 5 per cent of the sample will be shared between the Canadian Space Agency and the Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency (JAXA).
The Canadian Space Agency will receive 4 per cent of the sample as they developed the laser altimeter used on the OSIRIS-REx probe. JAXA will receive 0.5 per cent of the sample.
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