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'No do-overs': NASA team preps for return of historic asteroid mission

NASA's OSIRIS-REx mission is coming to a close this September. Scientists are currently rehearsing plans for receiving the capsule upon its return.
'No do-overs': NASA team preps for return of historic asteroid mission
Posted at 5:50 PM, Jun 29, 2023

Seven years after launch and a historic mission to gather a sample from the surface of an ancient asteroid named Bennu, the OSIRIS-REx mission will be coming to an end in a few months.

If all goes to plan, the OSIRIS-REx capsule will touch down in the Utah desert on September 24.

Before that happens, teams have been rehearsing how they will recover the capsule carrying its precious cargo and safely deliver it to a lab at the Johnson Space Center in Houston.

For two days this week, Scripps News had a chance to watch the recovery rehearsals up close at the Littleton, Colorado campus of Lockheed Martin,where OSIRIS-REx was built. 

OSIRIS-REx principal investigator Dante Lauretta with the University of Arizona says the cargo on board is a scientific bonanza, potentially revealing secrets about the formation of our solar system, and maybe how life began here on Earth.

"I've been poring over origin-of-life research. I do believe we have some new ideas. We have some key tests, and we are going to at least move the needle on this problem," said Lauretta.

Before the capsule lands, Lockheed Martin OSIRIS-REx Mission Operations Manager Sandy Freund says there is a lot of work to do. 

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"To be this close is really exciting," said Freund. "Now as we get into the Earth return phase, it's targeting the spacecraft towards earth, making sure we've got everything just right, releasing the sample return capsule." 

In a sunny field on the Lockheed Martin campus, about a dozen team members rehearsed the procedures for approaching, securing, and moving the OSIRIS-REx capsule, taking care to ensure the sample inside isn't contaminated.

"There are no do-overs," said NASA OSIRIS-REx project scientist Jason Dworkin. "We need to be ready to get the sample, to get the sample and make sure that we preserve it as efficiently and quickly as possible."

Next, the mock sample container was taken to a specialized clean room that will also be set up in Utah in September.

"We start to take away the parts that aren't relevant for science. Inside there is a canister," said Lauretta. "That canister is ultimately going to end up in the clean room at Johnson Space Center."

From there, the sample will be divided up and portions sent to scientists and laboratories around the world. First, however, the OSIRIS-REx spacecraft has to deliver the sample safely to Earth.

"I always use the metaphor of a quarterback throwing that perfect spiral into the end zone," said Lauretta.

Scoring that touchdown will finally allow scientists to examine part of an asteroid that is billions of years old, something they hope may even help solve a few ancient mysteries.

After being a part of the OSIRIS-REx mission for nearly two decades, Lauretta is thinking a lot about the upcoming landing.

"I think it's going to be a great relief. Now I get to go into the lab with my students, and we just get to be scientists again. And that is going to be like vacation," he laughed.

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