NASA Readies Sample From Huge Empire State Building-Sized Asteroid For Earth Crash Landing

hero asteroid bennu
NASA is making slight adjustments to the flight path of its OSIRIS-REx spacecraft, which is scheduled to deliver a sample capsule from Bennu, an asteroid the size of the Empire State Building, back to Earth. The final correction maneuvers ensured the spacecraft lands in a predetermined area on the Defense Department's Utah Test and Training Range.

The Origins, Spectral Interpretation, Resource Identification, and Security-Regolith Explorer, better known as OSIRIS-REx, was launched on September 8, 2016. It is the first-ever US mission to collect a sample from an asteroid for return to Earth. The samples collected from asteroid Bennu by OSIRIS-REx in 2020 will provide scientists "a window into the time when the Sun and planets were forming about 4.5 billion years ago."

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NASA sample recovery team member during field rehearsal.

In anticipation of the landmark event, recovery teams have been participating in field rehearsals simulating the recovery of the sample capsule. The spacecraft is currently on course to release its sample capsule, containing rocks and dust from asteroid Bennu, as it reaches approximately 63,000 miles (102,000km) above Earth's surface tomorrow.

Michael Moreau, Deputy Project Manager for OSIRIS-REx, explained why it is essential that NASA sent the spacecraft to Bennu, remarking, "Just from a general perspective, any time that we can explore a new world and see what it looks like and see what surprises it has in store for us, that's an amazing moment of discovery. It's like hiking to the top of a ridge and that moment of seeing the landscape on the other side for the first time."

Moreau explained that Bennu was chosen because it is a specific kind of asteroid believed to be made up of material dating back to the very formation of the solar system. The hope is that the returned material will provide a unique perspective in relation to the existing meteorite collection that scientists worldwide.

Even after OSIRIS-REx drops off the sample capsule, its journey is not over. It will continue on another mission called OSIRIS-APEX to rendezvous with a different near-Earth asteroid called Apophis in 2029. The spacecraft will have to be reconfigured as it will be flying very close to the Sun, and new challenges will have to be overcome just in the first few months of the new mission.

NASA has invited members of the public to attend the sample return virtually. As virtual guests, attendees can access curated resources and mission-specific information delivered to their inboxes. Attendees will also receive mission-specific collectible stamps for their virtual guest passports. Anyone wanting to attend the event virtually must register on NASA's website, with live coverage beginning at 10am EDT on September 24, 2023.

*Update 9/24/23 11:00am ET: OSIRIS-REx's Sample Return Capsule (SRC) made its landing at approximately 10:52am EDT inside the Utah Test and Training Range.

nasa visual of src on ground
nasa src team on site