Bye Bye Bennu: Osiris-Rex begins 2.5-year journey home from asteroid

Space Science

NASA’s OSIRIS-REx mission readies itself to touch the surface of asteroid Bennu. (Photo courtesy of NASA/Goddard/University of Arizona)

MYSTERY WIRE — A NASA spacecraft – packed with precious samples – is set to depart an asteroid on Monday (May 10), beginning its two-and-a-half-year journey back home.

The space agency’s Osiris-Rex descended to asteroid Bennu last October, momentarily touching the surface to collect a handful of cosmic rubble.

It’s been over six months since NASA’s Osiris-Rex spacecraft descended to asteroid Bennu, momentarily touching the surface to collect a handful of cosmic rubble for return to Earth.

The space agency says it will depart Bennu’s vicinity on Monday (May 10) and head back toward Earth with its precious two-pound sample load.

The long, 2.3 billion-kilometer journey, which will take the spacecraft twice around the sun, is expected to take two-and-a-half-years.

“We’re going to impart about a 260-meter per-second Delta V on the spacecraft so that we are actually starting that ballistic trajectory towards the Earth. And then, there will be other maneuvers that we will conduct during our return cruise,” explains mission operations manager Nayi Castro.

“So, leading up to our actual arrival in 2023. So, there will be some cleanup maneuvers or trajectory correction maneuvers that will be coming up. But this is really our big main engine burn to get us on that initial return cruise trajectory.”

Osiris-Rex began its journey to Bennu in September 2016, arriving in December 2018.

Castro says Monday’s departure “ranks high” in the seven-year mission, as the van-sized spacecraft is now carrying a precious cargo.

“It’s definitely very, very calculated, everything that we do with our risk analysis and whatnot,” she says.

“So, I would say that this manoeuver definitely ranks really high because we have a very, very precious cargo onboard that we’re trying to account for and ensure that we’re actually getting it where we need it to for it’s a long road home, about two and a half years.”

Before departure, Osiris-Rex made one final flyby of Bennu on April 7, taking photos of the disturbance left by October’s sample collection.

A depression was visible where the spacecraft penetrated the asteroid’s surface.

Boulders were hurled by the pressurized nitrogen gas that was fired at the ground to churn up material for vacuuming, and by the spacecraft’s getaway thruster. One 1-ton boulder was flung an estimated 40 feet (12 meters).

Osiris-Rex collected so much material from Bennu’s rough surface that rocks got wedged in the rim of the container and jammed it open.

Some of the samples were seen escaping into space, so flight controllers moved up the crucial stowing operation.

“We were seeing some of the larger rocks actually push open the mylar flap that’s supposed to close within the TAGSAM head. So, we were starting to see some of that material escape,” says Castro.

“So, what we did was actually move up the sample return capsule enclosure event to make sure that we were not losing any more sample because we want to be able to have every little bit.”

Rich in carbon, the solar-orbiting Bennu is believed to hold the preserved building blocks of the solar system.

Scientists say the remnants can help explain how our solar system’s planets formed billions of years ago and how life on Earth came to be.

The samples also can help improve our odds, they say, if a doomsday rock heads our way.

“Bennu is really kind of like a little time capsule of, you know, early solar system and early creation,” says Castro.

“So, we’re just interested in really seeing what that’s going to provide, especially information for us here on Earth and how Earth came to be, and also just to learn more about ourselves and our own composition.”

It will be September 2023 — seven years after Osiris-Rex rocketed from Cape Canaveral, Florida — before the samples arrive here, parachuting into the Utah desert.

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