Dugway • A NASA capsule returning more than 200 million miles from the surface of asteroid Bennu, which scientists hope contains clues to the origins of our universe, landed among the sand and scrub of Utah’s West Desert on Sunday morning.
Seven years after the NASA spacecraft OSIRIS-REx first launched from American soil in 2016, the Sample Return Capsule — or SRC — made a relatively gentle landing inside the Utah Test and Training Range, under the canopy of an orange and white parachute.
The capsule, roughly the size of a large truck tire, entered Earth’s atmosphere at about 8:40 a.m., traveling faster than 27,000 miles per hour, NASA officials said. Its main parachute, the second of two used to slow the capsule’s approach, deployed about seven minutes later at around 20,000 feet above the UTTR — much higher than the 5,000 feet NASA officials expected.
Five minutes after that, the capsule landed to cheers from a crowd of NASA officials, guests and media watching the landing live at Dugway Proving Ground.
“It went absolutely perfectly,” said Dante Lauretta, OSIRIS-REx principal investigator, moments after returning from surveying the capsule in the desert.
Lauretta, who is also a planetary science and cosmochemistry professor at the University of Arizona and has been working on the OSIRIS-REx mission for much of his career, said he “cried like a baby” when he heard the capsule’s main parachute had opened, meaning it would land as planned.
“That was the moment I knew we made it home,” Lauretta explained later at a news conference.
The capsule — charred black from the heat caused by entering Earth’s atmosphere — was packaged into a plastic tarp after landing, connected to a long tow line, then flown by helicopter from the desert to a makeshift clean room on Dugway Proving Ground.
There, another team would unpackage the capsule and prepare the sample material to be flown by military aircraft to Johnson Space Center in Houston on Monday. It will be days before scientists get a look at the actual samples, estimated to be about 8 ounces of rocks and minerals from the asteroid — a hypothesis based on early images and how OSIRIS-REx responded to flight controls, NASA officials said.
“These samples are an amazing treasure trove for generations,” said Eileen Stansbery, chief scientist at NASA’s Johnson Space Center, at a news conference Saturday afternoon.
She told media members Sunday that she was “happy to report” that the Bennu sample was “well on the way” to getting ready to be flown to Houston. An Air Force C-17 aircraft landed at Dugway Sunday afternoon and was staged to fly out Monday.
Around four hours before the capsule landed, NASA officials voted to release it from the spacecraft, according to a NASA spokesperson. The capsule was “live,” the spokesperson said, meaning the batteries packed onto the capsule before the spacecraft’s 2016 launch would be able to deploy its pair of parachutes.
After jettisoning the sample capsule toward Utah, OSIRIS-REx — short for Origins Spectral Interpretation Resource Identification Security-Regolith Explorer — was redirected from its yearslong journey toward Earth for a new mission: travel back into space to study another asteroid.
The successful landing of the sample capsule marked the first such mission conducted by the United States.
“The scientist just begins again — but the huge engineering accomplishment that’s happened by this daredevil spacecraft, it means it’s done everything it’s set out to do,” said Jed Hancock, president of the Space Dynamics Laboratory at Utah State University. SDL, an engineering and research lab that partners with the federal government to develop space and defense technology, developed and tested technology aboard OSIRIS-REx.
‘A pile of rubble that’s floating in microgravity’
Built and designed by Lockheed Martin in Colorado, the OSIRIS-REx spacecraft hasn’t been this close to home in years.
On Sept. 8, 2016, the unmanned space explorer launched from Cape Canaveral Air Force Station in Florida aboard an Atlas V rocket.
A year later, it slingshot around Earth, taking images of our planet and calibrating its instruments in preparation for exploring asteroid Bennu. The flyby, according to NASA, was also an opportunity to change the trajectory of OSRIS-REx, setting it on a yearlong, 200-million-mile route to Bennu.
“The total velocity change from Earth’s gravity far exceeds the total fuel load of the OSIRIS-REx propulsion system,” said Rich Burns, NASA project manager on the mission, at the time. “So we are really leveraging our Earth flyby to make a massive change to the OSIRIS-REx trajectory, specifically changing the tilt of the orbit to match Bennu.”
On Dec. 3, 2018, the 20-foot-long spacecraft arrived at Bennu, where it would spend the next two and half years studying the asteroid, which measures about 500 meters across. Before it could take a sample of Bennu, the spacecraft first had to digitally sketch its topography, and then scientists picked a landing site.
After mapping the asteroid using technology developed and built by Space Dynamics Laboratory, OSIRIS-REx briefly landed on Bennu, collecting the first U.S. asteroid sample on Oct. 20, 2020.
But what is Bennu, and where did it come from?
“What you’re really looking at here is, it’s almost like a droplet of liquid,” Lauretta told reporters this summer, sharing an image the spacecraft took of the asteroid.
“It’s a pile of rubble that’s floating in microgravity. So it’s boulders, it’s gravel, and it’s the result of a cosmic collision about a billion years ago in the main asteroid belt,” Lauretta explained. “Two much, much larger asteroids collided, shattered, created millions and millions of particles, some of those recollapsed into this pile of rubble that you see here today.
Nearly five years after it left Earth, OSIRIS-REx began to fly home in the spring of 2021, en route to deliver what scientists hope will be 8 ounces of human understanding of the origins of our existence.
Next mission: OSIRIS-APEX
Earlier this summer, NASA leaders told members of the media that Utah was the right place to land the sample capsule, because of the facilities offered by Dugway Proving Ground and the Utah Test and Training Range. Also, the vast, arid desert along the Beehive State’s northwest border provides a massive area for the capsule to land.
With the jettison and return of the OSIRIS-REx sample capsule to Utah’s West Desert, the mission to Bennu has largely been a success, but the spacecraft’s mission isn’t over yet.
While the sample of Bennu is packaged to be shipped to Houston, the spacecraft will begin a new journey to the asteroid Apophis, which is expected to travel close to Earth in 2029.
That new mission — now named OSIRIS-APEX, for Apophis Explorer — will use the spacecraft’s visual sensors to study Apophis, just as it did Bennu. But with the sample return technology now on Earth, the OSIRIS-APEX bonus mission will only be able to fly near Apophis and send data back to Earth.
Lauretta said it’s “a little bittersweet” as the REx mission passes to APEX, comparing it to kids leaving home. “But I’m really excited to see the new adventure they’ve got ahead of them.”
Space Dynamics Laboratory, Hancock said, never planned for an additional mission, but the Utah-based technology that was designed for the spacecraft is still operational, prepared for that next adventure.
“So far, it’s just been seamless,” Hancock said.