NASA's OSIRIS-REx arrives in Houston, US after returning asteroid samples to Earth

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Tuesday, September 26, 2023

The sample return capsule on Sunday.
Image: NASA.

Yesterday, a capsule from NASA's Origins, Spectral Interpretation, Resource Identification and Security – Regolith Explorer (OSIRIS-REx) spacecraft containing samples from the asteroid Bennu arrived in the US city of Houston, Texas. The capsule was en route to the Johnson Space Center (JSC) after landing in the Utah Test and Training Range the day before. This was NASA's first asteroid sample return.

As of Sunday, the capsule was in a cleanroom with the sample container undergoing a nitrogen purge, in which nitrogen is pumped into a container, maintaining the samples' purity from Earth's atmosphere's contamination of them. Staff are to later take apart the container, catalog its contents, and eventually provide samples to scientists in other institutions.

NASA Administrator Bill Nelson congratulated the OSIRIS-REx team "on a picture-perfect mission — the first American asteroid sample return in history — which will deepen our understanding of the origin of our solar system and its formation." Nelson also said the samples will lead to better understanding of asteroids that could head for Earth.

OSIRIS-REx launched in September 2016 and arrived at Bennu in December 2018. For almost two years, NASA scientists worked to select the best sample collection site. The spacecraft collected samples in October 2020 as it used a robotic arm to make contact with the surface and then inject nitrogen gas to kick up material into its receptacle. About 8.8 ounces of the approximately six metric tons of debris entered the receptacle. OSIRIS-REx began its return trip to Earth in May 2021.

The sample capsule was dropped at an altitude of 63,000 miles as the OSIRIS-REx spacecraft flew by Earth. It entered the atmosphere at 10:42 EDT (1442 UTC) and touched down about ten minutes later. Recovery teams used radar and other instruments to track the capsule. Personnel secured the capsule to ready its transport to JSC.

Since its launch in 2016, OSIRIS-REx has traveled 3.86 billion miles. With the sample-return phase complete, the spacecraft will continue on to the asteroid Apophis. To reflect the change in purpose, the mission has been renamed to Origins, Spectral Interpretation, Resource Identification, Security-APophis EXplorer (OSIRIS-APEX).