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NASA’s OSIRIS-REx mission begins its 1.4 billion mile journey home from asteroid Bennu

NASA’s OSIRIS-REx mission has embarked on its 1.4 billion-mile journey back to Earth after spending two years on asteroid Bennu. 

OSIRIS-REx (the Origins, Spectral Interpretation, Resource Identification, Security, Regolith Explorer) was the first NASA mission to visit a near-Earth asteroid, survey the surface, and collect a sample to deliver to Earth. 

The craft is carrying 2.1 ounces of rock and dust it collected from the asteroid during its land and  grab mission, which NASA hopes the carbon-rich samples will provide clues to how our solar system formed. 

The spaceship was sent to study Bennu, an asteroid around the size of the Empire State Building and 200 million miles away, between the orbit of Earth and Mars. 

If all goes to plan, OSIRIS-REx will orbit the sun twice and return its samples in Utah on September 24, 2023.  

NASA’s OSIRIS-REx mission will leave asteroid Bennu today, and begin its 1.4 billon mile two year long journey back to the Earth, the space agency confirmed 

The triumphant $1.16 billion mission is the first American effort to take a sample from an asteroid with the hopes to unlock secrets about the origin of life on Earth

The triumphant $1.16 billion mission is the first American effort to take a sample from an asteroid with the hopes to unlock secrets about the origin of life on Earth

BUILDING BLOCKS OF LIFE MAY BE IN BENNU BOULDERS 

Asteroid Bennu may contain the building blocks of life within its ‘rubble-pile’ surface, and the body was once part of a much larger, water covered world, scientists claim. 

NASA’s OSIRIS-Rex mission will land on Bennu on October 20 to collect samples of the space rock.

Bennu’s boulders were found to contain a bright vein of carbonate

Bennu’s boulders were found to contain a bright vein of carbonate

As part of the preparations for this mission, six research papers have been published looking at the history and make-up of the near Earth asteroid. 

One of those papers  found evidence of carbon-bearing and organic materials widespread across the surface of Bennu.

These materials were found in veins running through rocks and had to be formed as a result of free flowing water that was on the larger, long destroyed celestial body that created Bennu.

This is the first confirmed detection of these building blocks of life on a near-Earth asteroid.

‘I’ve been working on getting a sample back from an asteroid since my daughter was in diapers and now she´s graduating from high school, so it’s been a long journey,’ said NASA project scientist Jason Dworkin.

‘We have gotten used to being at Bennu and seeing new and exciting images and data coming back to us here on Earth.’

OSIRIS-REx made its historic grab of rock samples in October 2020, dodging boulders the size of buildings to collect samples from the surface for several seconds before safely backing away. It collected 2.1 ounces of rock and dust.

NASA confirmed late Monday afternoon that OSIRIS-REx had left Bennu for its journey back to Earth.

Colorado-based flight controllers for spacecraft builder Lockheed Martin applauded when confirmation arrived of the spacecraft’s departure: ‘We’re bringing the samples home!’ 

There was a 16 minute delay due to the distance between the space rock and the Earth, according to NASA, who said the journey begins 7 minutes after thrusters fire. 

The OSIRIS-REx departure sequence is the mission’s most significant maneuver since it arrived at Bennu in 2018, according to NASA. 

The thrusters must change their velocity by 595 miles per hour for the spacecraft’s path to intersect Earth and achieve a successful sample return.

The samples will land at the Utah Test and Training Range on September 24, 2023.

OSIRIS-REx is brining back the largest sample collected by a NASA mission since the Apollo astronauts returned with moon rocks. 

The precious rocks and dust will be housed at a new lab under construction at NASA’s Johnson Space Center in Houston, which is home to hundreds of pounds of lunar material collected by the 12 Apollo moonwalkers from 1969 to 1972. 

‘OSIRIS-REx’s many accomplishments demonstrated the daring and innovate way in which exploration unfolds in real time,’ said Thomas Zurbuchen, associate administrator for science at NASA Headquarters. 

‘The team rose to the challenge, and now we have a primordial piece of our solar system headed back to Earth where many generations of researchers can unlock its secrets.’ 

However, there is no straight path back to Earth from the location of Bennu between the orbits of Earth and Mars, NASA explained. 

Like a quarterback in American Football throwing a long pass to where a receiver will be in the future, OSIRIS-REx is traveling to where the Earth will be in two years time, not where it currently is today.

The spacecraft will circle the Sun twice, covering 1.4 billion miles to catch up with Earth, with the two objects meeting up on September 24, 2023.

OSIRIS-REx made history many times during its two and half years of operations on the asteroid, according to the space agency.

This includes breaking its own record for the closest orbit of a planetary body by a spacecraft and the smallest celestial object orbited by a human-built spacecraft.

If all goes to plan, OSIRIS-REx will orbit the sun twice and return its samples in Utah on September 24, 2023

If all goes to plan, OSIRIS-REx will orbit the sun twice and return its samples in Utah on September 24, 2023

The samples will land at the Utah Test and Training Range on September 24, 2023. The precious rocks and dust will be housed at a new lab under construction at NASA's Johnson Space Center in Houston

The samples will land at the Utah Test and Training Range on September 24, 2023. The precious rocks and dust will be housed at a new lab under construction at NASA’s Johnson Space Center in Houston

OSIRIS-REx made history many times during its two and half years of operations on the asteroid, according to the space agency

OSIRIS-REx made history many times during its two and half years of operations on the asteroid, according to the space agency 

NASA will set aside 75 percent of the samples for future generations to study with technologies not yet created.

There will be plenty of material to work with, according to NASA, and there could have been much more, with hundreds of grams stuffed in the sample container.

The container on the end of the robot arm penetrated so deeply into the asteroid with such force in October 2020 that rocks got sucked in and became wedged around the rim of the lid. 

The craft is carrying 2.1 ounces of rock and dust it collected from the asteroid during its land and grab mission, which NASA hopes the carbon-rich samples will provide clues to how our solar system formed

The craft is carrying 2.1 ounces of rock and dust it collected from the asteroid during its land and grab mission, which NASA hopes the carbon-rich samples will provide clues to how our solar system formed

In this image taken from video released by NASA, the Osiris-Rex spacecraft touches the surface of asteroid Bennu on Tuesday, Oct. 20, 2020

In this image taken from video released by NASA, the Osiris-Rex spacecraft touches the surface of asteroid Bennu on Tuesday, Oct. 20, 2020

The American space agency confirmed that the craft gathered at least two ounces (60 grams). pictured the is sample container on the end of the robot arm

The American space agency confirmed that the craft gathered at least two ounces (60 grams). pictured the is sample container on the end of the robot arm

A swirl of rocks and dust were seen surrounding the asteroid by NASA officials as the excess samples were shaken out of the container, capable of holding 2.1 ounces. 

The requirement for the $1.16 billion OSIRIS-REx mission was at least 2 ounces (60 grams) of samples for return, which NASA says it has achieved.

The carbon-rich material holds the preserved building blocks of our solar system and could help scientists better understand how the planets were formed and how life originated on Earth.

HOW WILL NASA’S OSIRIS-REX MISSION TO TAKE SAMPLES FROM AN ASTEROID WORK?

Osiris-Rex is the first US mission designed to return a piece of an asteroid to Earth.  

Scientists say the ancient asteroid could hold clues to the origin of life. 

It’s believed to have formed 4.5 billion years ago, a remnant of the solar system’s building blocks.

The spacecraft launched on September 8, 2016 at 19:05 EST aboard an Atlas V rocket.

After a careful survey of Bennu to characterise the asteroid and locate the most promising sample sites, Osiris-Rex will collect between 2 and 70 ounces (about 60 to 2,000 grams) of surface material with its robotic arm and return the sample to Earth via a detachable capsule in 2023.

To capture samples on the surface, the craft will hover over a specific area and ‘will be sent down at a very slow and gently’ 4 inches (10 cm) per second. 

The spacecraft will also carry a laser altimeter, a suite of cameras provided by the University of Arizona, spectrometers and lidar, which is similar to radar, using light instead of radio waves to measure distance. 

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