After five years in space, a US National Aeronautics and Space Administration ( NASA ) spacecraft is about to complete a historic mission. Over these years, the Origins, Spectral Interpretation, Resource Identification, Security and Regolith Explorer (OSIRIS-REx) spacecraft has collected a multitude of asteroid samples. The material, as soon as it arrives at its destination, will begin to be analyzed by researchers from the US agency.
According to the information that was made available by a report published by CBS News, OSIRIS-REx started its journey back to Earth this Monday, 10/05. The trip, according to the report, should take around two and a half years. The spacecraft’s return is considered historic by science because this is NASA’s first asteroid sampling mission.
Currently, OSIRIS-REx is more than 320 million kilometers away from Earth and will have to make two turns around the Sun to return to our planet – which is equivalent to 2,240,000,000 kilometers.
As stated in the report published by CBS News, the spacecraft’s engines, on Monday, ran at full speed for seven minutes. For NASA, this was the “most significant maneuver” of the OSIRIS-REx since it began the mission. The high power in the engine allowed the spacecraft to travel over 900 kilometers per hour / 4.5 billion years.
“I’m feeling very proud,” said the mission’s principal investigator, Dante Lauretta, in a press release. “This team showed a phenomenal performance. We’ve learned a lot throughout this entire mission and now we’re looking forward to the final science campaign, which involves analyzing the samples that have been collected. That’s why I’ve been involved in this program for so long.”
“It’s really exciting,” said Sandy Freund, mission operations program manager for Lockheed Martin Mission Support Area. “I can’t wait to see what we’ll learn from the analysis of the samples that will reach Earth. But there is something bad about it all, after all, we are saying goodbye to a mission that was being carried out for two years”.
For NASA, right now, the key is to keep the spacecraft on course. “We used to just think, ‘Where are we in space?’” said Mike Moreau, one of the project managers at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center. “Now we change. We just think, ‘How far is the spacecraft from Earth?’”
In a nutshell, keeping the object constantly on the right path is not easy. As the navigation cameras – which provide an overview of space and thereby help guide the OSIRIS-REx – were turned off last month, the researchers are now keeping the spacecraft on course via radio signals, whose wave frequencies provide OSIRIS-REx engineers with information that helps them pinpoint their location.
As we said earlier, OSIRIS-REx will orbit the Sun twice before reaching Earth. According to a report published by CBS News, the spacecraft is expected to arrive on our planet in September 2023. When it is about 9,600 kilometers from Earth, the capsule containing the asteroid samples will separate from the rest of the spacecraft and enter in the Earth’s atmosphere.
It is essential that this process takes place following the calculations already performed. If the OSIRIS-REx does not meet the stipulated calculations, the capsule may “rebound” out of the atmosphere or ignite. If everything goes according to plan, the capsule, with the help of a parachute, will land in the Utah Test and Training Range, in the Utah desert, where scientists await its arrival. Now, should the spacecraft fail to release the capsule, the team will divert the OSIRIS-REx from Earth. If that happens, the spacecraft will not return until 2025.
Researchers hope the samples will provide clues to the origins of our solar system and life. NASA said it will reserve 75% of the samples for future generations to analyze.
“The many accomplishments of the OSIRIS-REx demonstrate the bold and innovative way an exploration can happen in real time,” said Thomas Zurbuchen, associate science administrator at NASA Headquarters. “The team accepted the challenge and now we have a primordial part of our solar system returning to Earth, where many generations of researchers can unlock its secrets.”