Here’s how NASA will release a sample of an asteroid

NASA’s OSIRIS-REx spacecraft collected a sample from the asteroid Bennu in October 2020, and in May 2021 the spacecraft returned to Earth to download that sample. This week. the spacecraft performed a trajectory correction maneuver to keep it headed for Earth, where it is expected to arrive in September 2023.

NASA also shared more details on how exactly the spacecraft will deliver the asteroid sample to Earth, as this is not an easy process. OSIRIS-REx is not designed to be able to handle the incredible heat, friction and other forces required by traveling through the Earth’s atmosphere, so it has no way to land on the surface. Instead, it will launch a capsule filled with the asteroid sample into the atmosphere and only this capsule will make it to the surface.

An illustration of OSIRIS-REx bringing its sample of the asteroid Bennu back to Earth. NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center / Conceptual Image Lab

This maneuver will also be complicated, as Mike Moreau, deputy project manager of OSIRIS-REx at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center, explained in a statement. If the capsule is angled too high, it will jump out of the atmosphere, “Moreau said.” Angled too low, it will burn in the Earth’s atmosphere.

This is partly why the spacecraft has to make these trajectory maneuvers, to make sure it ends up in exactly the right place in September next year in order to launch the capsule at right angles.

“Over the next year, we will gradually adjust the OSIRIS-REx trajectory to point the closest spacecraft to Earth,” said Daniel Wibben, head of trajectory and maneuver design with KinetX Inc., which is the company responsible for the spacecraft’s navigation. . “We have to cross the Earth’s orbit when the Earth is in the same position.”

The recent trajectory maneuver was the first performed by the spacecraft on the return leg of its journey, with further maneuvers scheduled for July next year. Once the capsule has been released into the atmosphere, it will slow down with a parachute as it descends. It is hoped that the capsule will land in an exact planned location at the Air Force’s Utah Test and Training Range in the Great Salt Lake Desert, from where it can be picked up by the Air Force and the military, then taken to facilities for the scientific investigation.

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