Nasa spacecraft begins long trip back to Earth after collecting asteroid sample
Image credit: reuters
A Nasa spacecraft is beginning its two-year trip back to Earth carrying what is believed to be chunks of a distant asteroid.
Blasting off in September 2016, the OSIRIS-REx probe had a primary goal of obtaining at least 60g of material from 101955 Bennu, a near-Earth asteroid, and return it for detailed analysis.
It is believed to have collected the sample successfully last October, although some of it escaped when the flap that should have closed the sampler head was jammed open by larger rocks.
However, Nasa is still confident it was able to retain between 400g and over 1kg of sample material.
Yesterday the space agency directed the craft to fire its main engines full throttle for seven minutes, thrusting the spacecraft away from the asteroid at 600 miles per hour (1,000km/h).
After releasing the sample capsule back to Earth in September 2023, OSIRIS-REx will have completed its primary mission and will then fire its engines again to put it on a trajectory to circle the Sun inside of Venus’ orbit.
“OSIRIS-REx’s many accomplishments demonstrated the daring and innovative way in which exploration unfolds in real time,” said Thomas Zurbuchen, Nasa’s associate administrator for science.
“The team rose to the challenge, and now we have a primordial piece of our solar system headed back to Earth where many generations of researchers can unlock its secrets.”
To realise the mission’s multi-year plan, a dozen navigation engineers made calculations and wrote computer code to instruct the spacecraft when and how to push itself away from Bennu.
Bennu is thought to have broken off from a bigger asteroid and it is believed it could hold the preserved building blocks of the solar system that could shed light on how the planets formed and how life arose on Earth.
Last year, the Japanese space agency achieved a similar feat with the Ryugu asteroid but it collected a much smaller sample size than Nasa’s spacecraft.
Nasa says the samples it collected will be distributed to research laboratories worldwide, but 75 per cent of them will be preserved at the Johnson Space Center in Houston for future generations to study with technologies not yet created.
Sign up to the E&T News e-mail to get great stories like this delivered to your inbox every day.