NASA’s OSIRIS-REx has said its goodbyes to asteroid Bennu, the space rock it has studied for over two years. The spacecraft has analyzed this small asteroid in exquisite detail and finally last October flew down to its surface to collect a sample of asteroid material to bring back to Earth. Its journey home with its precious cargo has now begun.
On May 10, at 4:23 pm EDT, OSIRIS-REx fired its engines for a full 7-minute burn. The spacecraft started moving away from Bennu at almost 1,000 kilometers (600 miles) an hour to begin its 2.5-year-long path back to Earth.
“OSIRIS-REx’s many accomplishments demonstrated the daring and innovate way in which exploration unfolds in real time,” Thomas Zurbuchen, associate administrator for science at NASA Headquarters, said in a statement. “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.”
On October 20, 2020, the spacecraft flew down to the surface to grab a pristine sample of Bennu's soil, capturing some spectacular footage along the way.
“From a science standpoint and from a mission achievement standpoint, this is really the core moment,” Beau Bierhaus, OSIRIS-REx scientist at Lockheed Martin, told IFLScience at the time. “This is where we accomplish what the mission set out to do.”
Just a week before its historic touchdown, the mission released incredible footage captured while studying the asteroid that when edited together makes you feel like you are standing on its surface.
OSIRIS-REx is only the third spacecraft to collect material from an asteroid, and the first for the US, after Japan's Hayabusa and Hayabusa2 missions to asteroid Ryugu.
And now, mission complete, the journey home begins.
“Our whole mindset has been, ‘Where are we in space relative to Bennu?’” said Mike Moreau, OSIRIS-REx deputy project manager at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center. “Now our mindset has shifted to ‘Where is the spacecraft in relation to Earth?’”
The spacecraft will go around the Sun twice before getting past Earth on September 24, 2023. Then it will drop the sample capsule and fire its engine once again to move into a new orbit around the Sun, smaller than Venus’s. The sample capsule is directed to land at the Utah Test and Training Range in Utah's West Desert.