In September of this year, NASA’s OSIRIS-REx mission will achieve a remarkable milestone by releasing a capsule containing a sample of primordial space material collected from the asteroid Bennu. After its journey of billions of miles through our solar system, the spacecraft will make a close pass by Earth, during which it will deploy the mini-fridge-sized capsule.
OSIRIS-REx, short for the Origins, Spectral Interpretation, Resource Identification, and Security–Regolith Explorer, is the first U.S. mission to successfully gather a sample from an asteroid. This sample, which consists of approximately half a pound of rubble and dust from Bennu’s surface, is expected to offer valuable insights into the conditions that prevailed in our solar system around 4.5 billion years ago, during the formation of the Sun and planets.
However, the journey of this precious sample is not without its challenges. The capsule carrying the asteroid material will face extreme conditions, enduring temperatures hotter than lava and reaching the second-fastest velocity ever achieved by a human-made object upon entering Earth’s atmosphere. Once within Earth’s atmosphere, it will contend with potentially adverse weather conditions such as wind and rain as it descends toward its landing destination in the Great Salt Lake Desert, a region known for scorching temperatures and salt flats.
While technical aspects of the spacecraft and landing capsule are critical, a dedicated team of scientists and meteorologists will closely monitor weather conditions, as they can significantly impact the capsule’s recovery. Wind speed and direction, in particular, are key factors that could influence where the capsule ultimately touches down within a designated target area.
The selected landing site, the Department of Defense’s Utah Test and Training Range, has a history of safe and controlled landings, including the Stardust mission. To address potential challenges on the ground, the team has considered the desert’s late summer monsoon season, which can saturate the silty ground. To mitigate these issues, weather balloons will be deployed in the days leading up to the landing to gather crucial data on temperature, humidity, pressure, and wind, aiding in estimating the capsule’s likely landing location.
The final leg of the capsule’s journey will commence as it separates from the OSIRIS-REx spacecraft, entering Earth’s atmosphere above the West Coast. Equipped with a protective entry system, including a heat shield developed at NASA’s Ames Research Center, the capsule will endure extreme temperatures during its hypersonic descent. Radar and infrared tracking systems will monitor its journey, and aircraft, including a high-altitude WB-57 research plane, will provide visual and thermal imaging as it streaks eastward.
As the capsule approaches its landing point, it will deploy a drogue parachute to slow its descent before opening a round, main parachute closer to the ground. This design reduces the risk of being affected by winds and enhances stability, making it easier to locate on the ground.
Once safely recovered by a specialized team, the sample will be transported to a dedicated laboratory at NASA’s Johnson Space Center for preservation and in-depth study. The historic landing will provide valuable insights for future space delivery missions.
In summary, NASA’s OSIRIS-REx mission is poised to deliver a treasure trove of asteroid material to Earth, but this endeavor comes with considerable challenges, from the rigors of re-entry to the vagaries of desert weather. A dedicated team of experts is poised to ensure the safe and successful recovery of this remarkable sample, which promises to unlock secrets of our solar system’s ancient past.