Dugway • One morning this fall, as the sun rises over the Wasatch and Oquirrh mountains, the NASA spacecraft OSIRIS-REx will jettison a capsule it’s hauled across space for seven years towards Earth. Its destination: Utah.
The capsule, not much larger than a truck tire, is carrying what NASA officials hope will be the first U.S. sample taken from the surface of an asteroid. Entering the Earth’s atmosphere somewhere off the coast of California, the capsule will hurtle east toward Utah’s northwest desert.
The journey from the surface of asteroid Bennu will have been 200 million miles, NASA leaders say, with the flight lasting more than two years.
If a drogue parachute, used like a brake to slow the capsule down, and later a 24-foot main chute deploys, the capsule and asteroid sample will make a soft landing in the sand and scrub inside the military training range of Dugway Proving Ground on the morning of Sept. 24.
All of this, NASA officials say, will take 13 minutes — give or take 60 seconds.
After about two decades of planning and seven years of out-and-back space travel, NASA officials told members of the Utah media Thursday, it’s only after these final 780 seconds that they’ll know if it’s been a successful mission — an asteroid sample delivered to the Utah desert.
Scientists want to study Bennu to further understand the origins of life in the universe, said Richard Witherspoon, a ground recovery lead with Lockheed Martin who’s been working on the OSIRIS-REx mission.
“So what we’re looking for is how did amino acids, which are the building blocks of our life, get here on Earth,” Witherspoon said, adding that asteroids like Bennu could have delivered those building blocks, and even water, to Earth.
NASA officials say they think Bennu is around 4.5 billion years old — a little older than the planet where Thursday’s news conference was held — and could hold clues to how our solar system was formed.
“We want to understand what happened with us, how we got to be here,” said Dante Lauretta, a planetary science and cosmochemistry professor at the University of Arizona. On the OSIRIS-REx mission, Lauretta serves as a principal investigator.
“But we also want to understand how common this is throughout the galaxy, and ultimately, how common is it for the origin of life to occur,” he said.
OSIRIS-REx spacecraft, short for Origins Spectral Interpretation Resource Identification Security-Regolith Explorer, was launched out of Cape Canaveral, Florida, on Sept. 8, 2016, and reached Bennu in 2018. After surveying Bennu and giving NASA scientists time to study the asteroid from afar, the 20-foot-long spacecraft briefly landed on Bennu’s surface on Oct. 20, 2020, to collect a sample of dust and small rocks. Those materials were then stowed inside OSIRIS-REx and the space traveler began its long journey home.
But OSIRIS-REx will never actually return to the Earth’s surface, and once it releases the Bennu sample capsule to Earth, it will be retasked with a new, observation-only asteroid mission.
Once the capsule — known to mission members as the Sample Return Capsule, or SRC — touches down in Utah, an 11-person ground recovery team will fly by helicopter across the Utah Test and Training Range (UTTR) to retrieve the sample. That team, Witherspoon said, includes personnel from NASA, the University of Arizona, Lockheed Martin and UTTR.
They’ll have two hours to collect the capsule, package it for transportation back across the military installation, and collect soil and water samples from around its landing location. Those environmental samples will later serve as controls once scientists begin assessing the asteroid material.
The capsule will then be airlifted with a cable (or sling loaded, in military parlance) to a temporary “clean room” built inside a hanger at Dugway. There, specialists will decontaminate the capsule and prepare the Bennu sample for transportation to NASA’s Johnston Space Center in Houston, Texas.
While Dugway has a history of testing the military’s capacity to defend against chemical and biological threats, including decontaminating equipment and military personnel, NASA built its own clean room on the installation.
Nicole Lunning, a curation lead with NASA who will be inside the clean room to help package the sample for shipment to Houston, said organic contamination is the agency’s prime concern. NASA, she said, has already started collecting control samples inside the clean room.
“We’ll do that again a couple times before sample return,” Lunning said. “And that does really give us the ability to make sure we’re keeping the sample as safe as we can as we take it into cleaner and cleaner facilities, starting with this one and labs at Johnson Space Center.”
Why is NASA sending the sample to Utah?
Should Utahns be worried about the capsule returning to Earth? NASA leaders say Utah is the very place to land it, because of the facility and space offered by Dugway and the vast, arid desert along the Beehive State’s northwest border.
Mike Moreau, NASA’s deputy project manager for OSIRIS-REx, says even taking into consideration variables that could go awry — like winds and variations in atmospheric density — projections of the SRC landing zone still track inside the UTTR boundaries.
“In fact,” Moreau said, “that’s really one of the main reasons we picked this location.”
Even if the sample lands safely inside UTTR, are NASA scientists worried the successful space mission could turn into the plot of a real-life science fiction movie, with chemical or biological matter harming humans?
The officials say they casually joke about the possibility, but add that they’re confident their testing from afar these last seven years has ruled out the possibility. The real concern, they say, is that Earth could contaminate the nearly decade-long science project.
“We’ll see!” one quipped.