Skip to main content

NASA spacecraft begins long journey home with asteroid sample

Earlier today, a NASA spacecraft in deep space fired its thrusters to begin its long journey home.

The space agency’s Origins, Spectral Interpretation, Resource Identification, Security, Regolith Explorer (OSIRIS-REx) 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.

After nearly 5 years in space, @NASASolarSystem's #OSIRISREx mission is heading to Earth with a sample of rocks & dust from a 4.5-billion-year-old asteroid!

🪨 ▪️▪️▪️🛰️▪️▪️▪️ 🌎

Check out how its mission #ToBennuAndBack exceeded our expectations: https://t.co/91n38cmQNA pic.twitter.com/bxtT0uXeu3

— 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).

OSIRIS-REx Departure: Farewell to Asteroid Bennu

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 flyby 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 500 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 NASA has collected 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.

Editors' Recommendations

Trevor Mogg
Contributing Editor
Not so many moons ago, Trevor moved from one tea-loving island nation that drives on the left (Britain) to another (Japan)…
NASA’s Juno spacecraft to pass within 1,000 miles of volcanic moon Io
This image revealing the north polar region of the Jovian moon Io was taken on October 15 by NASA’s Juno. Three of the mountain peaks visible in the upper part of image, near the day-night dividing line, were observed here for the first time by the spacecraft’s JunoCam.

NASA's Juno spacecraft, currently in orbit around Jupiter, will soon be making a close flyby of one of the planet's most dramatic moons, Io. On Saturday, December 30, Juno will come within 1,000 miles of Io, making it the closest spacecraft to that moon in the last 20 years.

Io is an intriguing place because it shows signs of significant volcanic activity, making it the most geologically active body in the solar system. It hosts over 400 active volcanoes, which periodically erupt due to hot magma inside the moon created by friction caused by the gravitational pull between Jupiter and its other large moons.

Read more
NASA’s first asteroid-sampling mission continues on to a new target
OSIRIS-APEX pursues asteroid Apophis during its exceptionally close flyby of Earth on April 13, 2029.

NASA's OSIRIS-REx spacecraft recently dropped off precious cargo -- sending a sample it collected from asteroid Bennu tumbling through Earth's atmosphere to land in the Utah desert. A team quickly scooped up the sample and took it for analysis, enjoying the bounty of the largest-ever sample collected from an asteroid.

But the spacecraft didn't land on Earth along with the sample. Rather, it released the sample as it passed by Earth and continued its journey. Though the spacecraft only had the ability to collect one sample, it still has a whole suite of scientific instruments on board. So rather than letting that go to waste, the spacecraft will now be traveling on to investigate another asteroid. Its new mission is also marked with a new name: the spacecraft is now OSIRIS-APEX.

Read more
NASA’s Lucy spacecraft snaps not one, but two asteroids during flyby
This image shows the “moonrise” of the satellite as it emerges from behind asteroid Dinkinesh as seen by the Lucy Long-Range Reconnaissance Imager (L’LORRI), one of the most detailed images returned by NASA’s Lucy spacecraft during its flyby of the asteroid binary. This image was taken at 12:55 p.m. EDT (1655 UTC) Nov. 1, 2023, within a minute of closest approach, from a range of approximately 270 miles (430 km). From this perspective, the satellite is behind the primary asteroid. The image has been sharpened and processed to enhance contrast.

NASA's Lucy spacecraft is on its way to the orbit of Jupiter to study the asteroids there, called Trojans. Recently, while on its trip, it made a quick flyby of another small asteroid called Dinkinesh. The spacecraft confirmed its flyby of the asteroid this week, but when it returned the images it took, there was a surprise in store: a second, even smaller asteroid tucked up next to Dinkinesh.

Lucy took images using its Lucy Long-Range Reconnaissance Imager (L’LORRI) camera, which confirmed that the larger asteroid is around 0.5 miles across and the smaller asteroid is just 0.15 miles across. As the spacecraft approached Dinkinesh, the Lucy team had wondered if it might be part of a pair, called a binary system, because of the way its brightness changed over time. When the spacecraft flew by and snapped its images, this speculation was confirmed.

Read more