A plate-shaped capsuleA spacecraft that may hold clues to the birth of the solar system slammed into Earth’s atmosphere on Sunday and descended to a target parachute-assisted touchdown in Utah, ending a dramatic seven-year, four-billion-mile journey.
Released four hours earlier from the OSIRIS-REx mothership, the 110-pound 31-inch-wide sample return capsule was loaded with a half-pound of rocks and soil collected from the asteroid Bennu in 2020. Atmosphere, 82 miles above, at 27,700 mph at 10:42 a.m. EDT.
Over the next two minutes, rapidly reduced in an inferno of atmospheric friction, the capsule’s heat shield endured re-entry temperatures of more than 5,000 degrees and braking forces 32 times the force of gravity during the Utah Range test and practice landing. West of Salt Lake City.
With scientists and engineers holding their breath — a similar capsule crashed in Utah in 2004 when its parachutes failed to open — the OSIRIS-REx sample return capsule survived its test, deploying a stabilizing troch parachute at 20 miles. .
The 24-foot-wide main capsule was expected to expand and inflate at an altitude of 5,000 feet, but NASA said it actually deployed at 20,000 feet. That may have contributed to a slightly earlier-than-expected touchdown, but either way, the main cued model lowered the return capsule to an 11-mile landing expected at 10:52 a.m. EDT, the final step of a nail-biting descent.
A recovery team from prime contractor Lockheed Martin and the Utah Test and Training Range spent minutes documenting the condition of the capsule, looking for signs of a breach that could contaminate the ancient samples inside.
Also on hand: University of Arizona principal investigator Dante Lauretta, part of a team assigned to characterize the surrounding environment to fully document the landing zone’s chemical makeup. Maybe.
But there were no obvious problems, the capsule was intact and there were no signs of any breaches that could have let in earthly contaminants. Once that was confirmed, a helicopter took the capsule to a temporary air-filtered “clean room” and made preparations to send samples to a state-of-the-art laboratory at the Johnson Space Center in Houston on Monday.
Lauretta said the samples are the largest collection of extraterrestrial material since the Apollo lunar program — the material that formed the Sun 4.5 billion years ago and representatives of its planets.
“We’re going back to the dawn of the solar system, looking for clues as to why Earth is a habitable world, this rare jewel in space that has oceans, that has a protective atmosphere,” he said. “We think all that material was brought (to Earth) by these carbon-rich asteroids.
“Of course, the biggest question, which drives my scientific research, is the origin of life. What is life? How did it form? Why did it happen on Earth? … We believe. We’re bringing back those kinds of things, the seeds of life that these asteroids provided at the beginning of (Earth’s history). may be representatives.”
Two Japanese spacecraft returned small samples from asteroids in 2010 and 2020, but OSIRIS-REx — an acronym that stands for Origin, Spectral Interpretation, Resource Identification and Conservation Regolith Explorer — was the first mission carried by NASA.
After the initial study in Houston, NASA will share Bennu’s samples with researchers around the world.
“It’s a gift to the world,” Lauretta said. “We have laboratories on four continents, 16 time zones, hundreds of researchers, more than 60 laboratories that are preparing to acquire this object, and we are ready to launch the final science campaign of the OSIRIS-REx Prime mission.”
The OSIRIS-REx spacecraft and sample return capsule, equipped with three cameras, two spectrometers, a laser altimeter and an X-ray imaging system developed by college students, launched on September 8 from Cape Canaveral on a United Launch Alliance Atlas 5 rocket. 2016.
OSIRIS-REx orbited the Sun to reach Bennu, which orbits at a six-degree tilt from Earth, and then performed a gravity-assisted flyby on September 22, 2017 that accelerated Earth. The spacecraft finally slipped into orbit around Bennu. Late 2018.
The scientists were stunned by what they found. Instead of a more typical body of fine soil and rock over a more or less solid interior, Bennu became a pile of loosely compacted rubble as the Empire State Building rose. than a solid.
After extensive mapping to identify a safe sample collection point, OSIRIS-REx slowly descended toward the surface on October 20, 2020, its pie pan-shaped “touch-and-go sample acquisition mechanism,” or TAGSAM, finally ready. An 11-foot-long robotic arm.
On contact, the probe pumped nitrogen gas around the interior of the 12-inch-wide TAGSAM, stirring up the soil and small rocks beneath it, and blowing some of the material into the collection filters before the spacecraft swerved back.
“It behaved very much like a liquid, with no resistance to the spacecraft’s downward motion,” Lauretta said in an interview. “We sank about 50 centimeters (20 inches) deep, and if we hadn’t fired the pin-out thrusters, I think we would have gone into the asteroid and disappeared.”
After retreating from Bennu, the TAGSAM mechanism and its precious samples were placed inside the OSIRIS-REx return capsule for the long return to Earth and Sunday’s dramatic reentry.
After course corrections for deployment at the Utah landing site, OSIRIS-REx released the mothership sample return capsule at 6:42 a.m. EDT. With the capsule safely on its way, the OSIRIS-REx spacecraft fired its thrusters 20 minutes later, ensuring it would safely miss Earth by about 484 miles.
The “turn” maneuver put the craft on a close encounter with the asteroid Apophis in 2029.
At nearly 1,200 feet across, Apophis will come within 20,000 miles of Earth in 2029, making it an astronomically close miss. The OSIRIS-REx spacecraft, now called OSIRIS-Apophis Explorer, will brake into orbit around Apophis shortly after the asteroid’s flyby and kick off extended observations.