NASA’s OSIRIS-REx spacecraft begins its 2-year trip home with asteroid debris


With rubble from an asteroid tucked inside, a NASA spacecraft fired its engines and began the long journey back to Earth on Monday.

This mosaic of asteroid Bennu is composed of 12 images collected on Dec. 2, 2018, by the OSIRIS-REx spacecraft from a range of 24 kilometres. (NASA/Goddard/University of Arizona)

With rubble from an asteroid tucked inside, a NASA spacecraft fired its engines and began the long journey back to Earth on Monday, leaving the ancient space rock in its rearview mirror.

The trip home for the robotic prospector, OSIRIS-REx, will take two years.

OSIRIS-REx reached asteroid Bennu in 2018 and spent two years flying near and around it before collecting rubble from its surface last fall.

The University of Arizona's Dante Lauretta, the principal scientist, estimates the spacecraft holds between 200 grams and 400 grams of mostly bite-size chunks. Either way, it easily exceeds the target of at least 60 grams.

It will be the biggest cosmic haul for the U.S. since the Apollo moon rocks. While NASA has returned comet dust and solar wind samples, this is the first time it's gone after pieces of an asteroid. Japan has accomplished it twice, but in tiny amounts.

Scientists described Monday's departure from Bennu's neighbourhood as bittersweet.

"I've been working on getting a sample back from an asteroid since my daughter was in diapers," said NASA project scientist Jason Dworkin. "Now she's graduating from high school, so it's been a long journey."

OSIRIS-REx was already nearly 300 kilometres from the solar-orbiting Bennu when it fired its main engines Monday afternoon for a fast, clean getaway.

Colorado-based flight controllers for spacecraft builder Lockheed Martin applauded when confirmation arrived of the spacecraft's departure: "We're bringing the samples home!"

Scientists hope to uncover some of the solar system's secrets from the samples vacuumed last October from Bennu's dark, rough, carbon-rich surface. The asteroid is an estimated 490 metres wide.

Bennu — considered a broken chunk from a bigger asteroid — is believed to hold the preserved building blocks of the solar system. The returning pieces could shed light on how the planets formed and how life arose on Earth. They also could improve Earth's odds against any incoming rocks.

Although the asteroid is 287 million kilometres away, OSIRIS-REx will put another 2.3 billion kilometres on its odometer to catch up with Earth.

The SUV-sized spacecraft will circle the sun twice before delivering its small sample capsule to Utah's desert floor on Sept. 24, 2023, to end the more than $800 million-mission. It launched from Cape Canaveral, Fla. in 2016.

The precious samples will be housed at a new lab under construction at NASA's Johnson Space Center in Houston, already home to hundreds of kilograms of lunar material collected by the 12 Apollo moonwalkers from 1969 to 1972.

Scientists initially thought the spacecraft stored 1 kilogram of asteroid rubble, but more recently revised their estimate downward. They won't know for certain how much is on board until the capsule is opened after touchdown.

"Every bit of sample is valuable," Dworkin said. "We have to be patient."

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