NASA’s OSIRIS-REx Gears Up to Return Billion-Year-Old Asteroid Samples to a Specialized Facility

by Amir Hussein
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NASA missions

NASA’s ambitious OSIRIS-REx mission is all set to bring back rock and dust samples from Bennu, a 4.5 billion-year-old asteroid. These remnants of the early solar system will shed light on the role of similar asteroids in planetary formation and the emergence of life on Earth. Expected to arrive at NASA’s Astromaterials Research and Exploration Science (ARES) division at Johnson, these samples, collected in 2020, will enhance our understanding of potential asteroid impacts on Earth and aid future asteroid deflection initiatives.

OSIRIS-REx is scheduled to return samples from asteroid Bennu to Earth, revealing secrets about planet formation and life’s origin. The samples will also inform measures to prevent asteroid impacts. Preserved for future research, they will be analyzed by over 200 scientists globally at a purpose-built facility at NASA’s Johnson Space Center.

If all goes well, OSIRIS-REx’s sample return capsule will detach from the spacecraft in September 2023. It will then re-enter the Earth’s atmosphere and parachute safely to Earth, where it will be recovered at the Department of Defense’s Utah Test and Training Range, approximately 70 miles west of Salt Lake City.

Nicole Lunning, OSIRIS-REx’s lead sample curator at NASA’s Johnson Space Center, and her team are eagerly preparing for the arrival of the Bennu samples.

The samples, referred to as regolith, were collected from Bennu’s surface in 2020. As Bennu is likely a well-preserved remnant of the early solar system, these samples will provide insights into the roles of similar asteroids in planetary formation and possibly in delivering organic materials and water to Earth, elements crucial for life. Data from the OSIRIS-REx mission will also help scientists understand asteroids that could potentially impact Earth and guide future asteroid deflection efforts.

The OSIRIS-REx curation laboratory at NASA’s Johnson Space Center is being prepared for the safe handling and preservation of the asteroid samples, which will be scrutinized and stored by NASA’s ARES division. The ARES division houses the world’s largest collection of extraterrestrial materials — including lunar rocks, solar wind particles, meteorites, and comet samples.

From late 2023 to late 2025, the science team will characterize the samples and conduct the necessary analysis to meet the mission’s science objectives. At least 70 percent of the sample will be preserved at Johnson for future research by scientists worldwide. A group of more than 200 scientists from various institutions and international partners will examine the regolith’s properties.

The new curation lab is equipped with specialized gloveboxes for safely handling the OSIRIS-REx sample and the hardware used to collect the material from the asteroid and bring it to Earth. A multitude of experts are joining forces to create custom tools for the curation lab, with many developed onsite at Johnson’s Manufacturing group and the Innovation Design Center. These tools will safeguard the sample from potential contaminants during complex procedures for flight hardware disassembly in gloveboxes.

A portion of the material from Bennu’s surface will be finer than a grain of sand. “We have been developing custom tools to delicately handle these precious particles within our new gloveboxes,” said Christopher Snead, OSIRIS-REx deputy curator at Johnson.

In addition to the Bennu samples, ARES curation laboratories continue to analyze fresh batches of Moon rocks preserved since the Apollo missions under the Apollo Next Generation Sample Analysis initiative. Learnings from Apollo and other missions have improved the science behind sample protection, contingency planning, and contamination control. This legacy will be carried forward with the

Frequently Asked Questions (FAQs) about OSIRIS-REx mission

What is the OSIRIS-REx mission?

The OSIRIS-REx mission is an initiative by NASA to return samples from the asteroid Bennu to Earth. These 4.5 billion-year-old samples are expected to help scientists understand the formation of planets and the origin of life.

Where will the OSIRIS-REx samples be analyzed?

The samples will be examined and stored at NASA’s Astromaterials Research and Exploration Science (ARES) division at Johnson Space Center. This division is home to the world’s most extensive collection of extraterrestrial materials.

When are the samples from Bennu expected to return to Earth?

If everything goes according to plan, the samples are expected to return to Earth in September 2023.

Who will analyze the samples brought back by OSIRIS-REx?

The samples will be analyzed by a global team of over 200 scientists at a specially designed facility at NASA’s Johnson Space Center. The team includes researchers from US institutions, NASA partners such as JAXA (Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency), CSA (Canadian Space Agency), and other scientists worldwide.

How will the OSIRIS-REx samples contribute to our understanding of asteroids?

The samples will provide insight into the role of similar asteroids in the formation of planets and the delivery of organic material and water to Earth that may have led to life. The mission will also help scientists better understand asteroids that could potentially impact Earth and inform future asteroid deflection efforts.

More about OSIRIS-REx mission

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