NASA’s OSIRIS-REx spacecraft will soon begin its journey back to Earth after spending close to two-and-a-half years on the Bennu asteroid. The spacecraft will venture back to our home planet on May 10, 2021.
The space agency initially sent the Spectral Interpretation, Resource Identification, Security, Regolith Explorer (OSIRIS-REx) spacecraft to Bennu in 2016 to collect samples from the asteroid. NASA hopes these samples will be able to teach us more about the formation of the Solar System and how life potentially began here on Earth.
Save the date! I’ll be leaving Bennu on May 10 — but it looks like I might get one last close-up with the asteroid before my journey back to Earth 🛰🌎
— NASA’s OSIRIS-REx (@OSIRISREx) January 26, 2021
According to Michael Moreau, OSIRIS-REx deputy project manager, the May deadline is the perfect date to return because, “Leaving Bennu’s vicinity in May puts us in the ‘sweet spot,’ when the departure maneuver will consume the least amount of the spacecraft’s onboard fuel.”
The May departure also provides the OSIRIS-REx team with the opportunity to plan a final spacecraft flyby of Bennu. This final flyby was not part of the original mission schedule, but the team is studying the feasibility of a final observation run of the asteroid to potentially learn how the spacecraft’s contact with Bennu’s surface altered the sample site.
If feasible, the flyby will take place in early April and will observe the sample site, named Nightingale, from a distance of approximately 3.2 kilometers. Bennu’s surface was considerably disturbed after the Touch-and-Go (TAG) sample collection event, with the collector head sinking 48.8 centimeters into the asteroid’s surface. The spacecraft’s thrusters also disturbed a substantial amount of surface material during the back-away burn.
The spacecraft will remain in asteroid Bennu’s vicinity until May 10, when the mission will enter its Earth Return Cruise phase. As it approaches Earth, OSIRIS-REx will jettison the Sample Return Capsule (SRC). The SRC will then travel through the Earth’s atmosphere and land under parachutes at the Utah Test and Training Range.
“OSIRIS-REx has already provided incredible science,” said Lori Glaze, NASA’s director of planetary science at the agency’s headquarters in Washington. “We’re really excited the mission is planning one more observation flyby of asteroid Bennu to provide new information about how the asteroid responded to TAG and to render a proper farewell.”
Take a look at OSIRIS-REx touching down on Asteroid Bennu below:
Picture: NASA/Goddard/University of Arizona