NASA’s spacecraft OSIRIS-Rex (the long-winded name is Origins, Spectral Interpretation, Resource Identification, Security, Regolith Explorer) is on its way back after collecting samples from an asteroid! This video depicts a sample of the images, the asteroid’s many varied features including giant boulders and the soil sample collection event.
Its very cool objective was to travel to near-Earth asteroid Bennu (also called 1999 RQ36) and bring back a sample of between 60 grams to 2 kg of Bennu’s black, carbon rich surface material. Launched in September 2016, OSIRIS-REx rendezvoused with Bennu in December 2018. On board, it has telecommunication equipment, but more importantly, it carries instruments to study the asteroid in many wavelengths, take images and of course retrieve a soil sample.
Science communication fun fact: The Planetary Society in the US, organised a campaign for people to have their names or artwork saved on a microchip, which the spacecraft now carries. Also, Bennu was named by nine-year-old Michael Puzio, who won a contest to name the asteroid.
When OSIRIS-REx entered Bennu’s orbit in December 2018 at approximately 1.75 km (1.09 mi), it started remote sensing and mapping exercises to select a sample site. At this altitude, it takes the spacecraft 62 hours to orbit Bennu. At the end of a detailed survey, it entered a closer orbit with a radius of 1 km (0.62 mi).
As if visiting asteroids and collecting soil samples wasn’t enough, OSIRIX REx overachieved its mission and November 11, 2019. While its instruments were performing detailed scientific observations of Bennu, it captured X-rays radiating from a point off the asteroid’s edge. The X-rays were being emitted by a newly flaring blackhole binary, 30,000 light years away, discovered just a week earlier by Japan’s MAXI telescope.
In December 2019, after analysing the surface of the asteroid for a target sample area, the team leading the mission selected a collection site out of four candidates. The site they called Nightingale. It is located in a crater in the northern hemisphere. Finally, in October 2020 OSIRIS REx successfully retrieved a sample from the surface of the asteroid. After spending two years in orbit, on April 9, 2021, it took one last look at Bennu and on May 10, 2021 embarked on its return voyage to Earth.
In two years and after a 1.2 billion-mile journey, which includes going around the Sun twice, OSIRIS-REX will reach Earth. It is expected to return in September 2023, when it will jettison a sealed capsule containing the sample, which will land under a parachute at the US Air Force’s Utah Test and Training Range. The samples will be analysed at NASA’s Astromaterials Research and Exploration Science Directorate (ARES). The spacecraft itself will not return, there are plans for its journey to continue. Its navigators plan to send it onwards to asteroid Apophis in April 2029, when that asteroid is only 20,000 miles from Earth.
As OSIRIS REx left Bennu it captured one last photo of the asteroid as a crescent- which can be seen in the featured image – as the spacecraft flies away.
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All images and clips from NASA/Goddard/University of Arizona
Title Music: Hovering Thoughts by Spence from YouTube Audio Library
Video Music: His Last Share of The Stars by Doctor Turtle (FreeMusic Archive)