Mission accomplished: University of Arizona-led OSIRIS-REx mission returns asteroid sample

Published: Sep. 24, 2023 at 11:42 PM MST
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TUCSON, Ariz. (13 News) - After seven years, NASA’s University of Arizona-led OSIRIS-REx mission has ended with the successful landing of a capsule containing a sample from the asteroid Bennu.

The sample is now in the hands of scientists and a part of it will eventually end up at the University of Arizona.

For Dante Lauertta, the missions principal investigator at the University of Arizona, this was the end of a 20-year-long journey. He said some moments were a bit unknown and had him thinking of the worst-case scenario. Yet, when he saw the main parachute deployed, he knew the mission was successful.

“Within minutes Jasmine said main chute and that is when I emotionally let it all go. Tears were streaming down my eyes, that is the only thing I needed to hear. From this point on we are safe, we are home, we did it,” said Lauretta.

The capsule landed at 7:52 a.m. in Tucson – on Sunday, in a targeted area of the Department of Defense’s Utah Test and Training Range. Lauretta was one of the first people to lay eyes on the capsule. He recounts what the landing was like.

“Boy did we stick that landing. It was just sitting right there a few ten feet from off the road. The perfect place for the helicopter to land. It didn’t move, it didn’t role, it didn’t bounce, it just made a tiny little divot in the Utah soil,” said Lauretta.

Within 10 minutes of the capsule landing, the recovery team was dispatched to retrieve it. The capsule was found with no signs of damage. It was then taken to a temporary clean room. The sample is now connected to a continuous flow of nitrogen to keep out contaminates and to keep the sample pure for analysis until it is transferred to the Johnson Space Center in Houston, Texas.

“We think we’ve got a lot of sample in that canister, and we cannot wait to crack into it,” said Lauretta.

Carina Bennett first started on this mission as a University of Arizona student. Now, when the university finally receives its sample, she will be helping to manage and archive the scientific data.

“We have 200 scientists all over the entire world who are going to be working with these samples simultaneously. So it’s really important for us to make it really easy to communicate with each other and to keep track of the sample,” said Carina Bennett, project manager of the software team for the OSIRIS-REx mission.

Bennett said this sample can help answer some of science’s biggest questions.

“There’s some of the really big scientific questions that we’re interested in. So Bennu, can shed some light on the origin of the solar system and also the origin of life on Earth,” said Bennett.

Now that the sample has been returned, the spacecraft will now set off on a new mission known as OSIRIS-APEX to explore the asteroid Apophis in 2029. The mission’s principal investigator will be Dr. Daniella DellaGiustina with the University of Arizona.

“We’re going to get very close to the asteroid surface, and basically blast our thrusters and kick up all of that dirt and material so that we can see what’s underneath the layer that hasn’t been touched by solar radiation and hasn’t been touched by space weathering, and see some really pristine sample or asteroid surface,” said Bennett.

Lauretta said the team hopes to have a first look at the sample as early as Tuesday. From there, 70% of the sample will remain at Johnson Space Center, with 25% being shared by over 35 facilities, including at the University of Arizona.

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