Updated 6:30 p.m. Eastern with comments from post-landing briefing.
KIHEI, Hawaii — A capsule from a NASA spacecraft landed in the Utah desert Sept. 24, completing a seven-year mission to return samples from a near Earth asteroid.
The sample return capsule from the Origins, Spectral Interpretation, Resource Identification, and Security-Regolith Explorer, or OSIRIS-REx, spacecraft touched down in the Utah Test and Training Range at 10:52 a.m. Eastern. The landing took place 10 minutes after the capsule, traveling at 44,500 kilometers per hour, entered the Earth’s atmosphere, four hours after the capsule separated from the main spacecraft.
The landing took place three minutes earlier than the nominal timeline for the capsule’s return. NASA said on the landing webcast that the main parachute opened at a much higher altitude than planned: about 6,000 meters versus the expected 1,500 meters.
At a post-landing press conference, project officials said that while a drogue parachute did deploy in advance of the main parachute, there was not clear how well the drogue performed, as there was no visual confirmation that the drogue had inflated.
“Something in our sequence may or may not have behaved itself exactly the way we expected it to, but the subsequent things in the sequence made up for it,” said Tim Priser, chief engineer for deep space exploration at Lockheed Martin, which built the OSIRIS-REx spacecraft. “At the end of the day, when that main chute deployed, it basically corrected anything that may have happened ahead of it.”
The capsule landed about eight kilometers from the center of the final landing ellipse, which extended 12 by 30 kilometers, said Mike Moreau, deputy project manager for the mission at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center. That was not unexpected, he said, as forecasted atmospheric variations predicted a landing to the east of the center.
The capsule itself was in good condition after landing, said Dante Lauretta, principal investigator for OSIRIS-REx at the University of Arizona, who was part of the team who recovered the capsule. “There was no sign of any damage or distortions of the heat shield and backshell that we could see,” he said, beyond the expected charring of the exterior from reentry. “We pretty much stuck the landing.”
The recovery team took the capsule to a temporary clean room at the Dugway Proving Ground for initial work to remove the capsule’s heat shield and backshell. Eileen Stansbery, chief scientist at the Johnson Space Center, said there was no sign in that initial work that any of the asteroid samples collected had leaked out of the canister containing them inside the capsule.
NASA launched OSIRIS-REx in September 2016 on an Atlas 5, and the spacecraft arrived at Bennu in 2018. After studying the asteroid’s surface from orbit, scientists selected a location on the surface to perform a “touch and go” maneuver where the spacecraft would descend the surface, briefly plunging a sampling device into the surface to collect material from the asteroid before retreating.
That sampling maneuver took place in October 2020 and worked almost too well, gathering so much material from the surface of Bennu that engineers accelerated the stowage of the sample container into the return capsule after images showed some material leaking into space.
Project officials said that while they were not able to measure how much material was in the sample canister, they believed they far exceeded the mission requirement of 60 grams of material. Lauretta said at a Sept. 22 briefing that the mission estimated the capsule carried 250 grams of material, plus or minus 101 grams. “Even at the low end of that end estimate, we’re well above our mission requirements,” he said.
The sample container will be transported to a curation facility at the Johnson Space Center Sept. 25. Once there, scientists will begin a meticulous process to remove the samples to avoid contamination and allow scientific study to begin. NASA cautioned, though, that the effort may be put on hold if there is a federal government shutdown because of a lapse of funding on Oct. 1.
Lauretta said at the post-landing briefing that some initial analysis of samples could begin as soon as Sept. 26, when the canister is opened and some dust on its surface is collected.
The main OSIRIS-REx spacecraft, which performed a maneuver 20 minutes after capsule separation to safely by by Earth, will now begin an extended mission called OSIRIS-APEX. It will travel to another near Earth asteroid, Apophis, arriving shortly after the asteroid makes an Earth flyby in 2029.
Lauretta will remain focused on the sample analysis of a mission he has been involved with for nearly two decades, when Lockheed Martin and the University of Arizona proposed partnering on an asteroid sample return mission. “It was like meeting an old friend that I hadn’t seen for a long time,” he said of encountering the capsule after landing. “I knew we had done it. We had pulled it off.”