Earlier today, a NASA spacecraft in deep space fired its thrusters to begin its long journey home.
The space agency’s OSIRIS-REx (Origins, Spectral Interpretation, Resource Identification, Security, Regolith Explorer) spacecraft is bringing with it samples of material collected from the ancient Bennu asteroid last year in the first mission of its kind by NASA.
“After nearly 5 years in space, NASA’s OSIRIS-REx mission is heading to Earth with a sample of rocks and dust from a 4.5-billion-year-old asteroid!” the agency said in a tweet on Monday, May 10.
🪨 ▪️▪️▪️🛰️▪️▪️▪️ 🌎
— NASA (@NASA) May 10, 2021
NASA livestreamed the moment when confirmation came through to its mission team that OSIRIS-REx had successfully departed Bennu’s orbit to begin its mammoth journey of some 200 million miles (320 million km).
To begin its voyage to Earth, the spacecraft fired its main engines at full throttle for seven minutes in what NASA described as OSIRIS-REx’s “most significant maneuver since it arrived at Bennu in 2018.”
The spacecraft is set to perform a fly-by of Earth in September 2023, dropping off a capsule of material from an asteroid that scientists believe formed in the first 10 million years of our solar system’s existence. It means that the sample has the potential to provide us with more insight into the formation of our solar system, and could even shed new light on the origins of life.
The Bennu asteroid is about 50o meters long and is traveling through space at 63,000 mph. The challenging sample collection process involved OSIRIS-REx performing the astonishing feat of touching down on the asteroid before using its robotic arm to gather the material.
“OSIRIS-REx’s many accomplishments demonstrated the daring and innovate way in which exploration unfolds in real time,” said Thomas Zurbuchen, associate administrator for science at NASA Headquarters. “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.”
While this is the first time for NASA to collect a sample from an asteroid, the feat has been achieved before, most recently by the Japanese Space Agency, which in 2019 used its Hayabusa2 spacecraft to gather material from the Ryugu asteroid before successfully delivering the sample to Earth last year.