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Asteroid to reach Earth today … well, a sample of one that is

HUNTSVILLE — An asteroid sample is scheduled to land today in a Utah desert and should bring NASA one step closer to studying the earliest history of our solar system.

The capsule that will deliver the asteroid sample is part of NASA’s New Frontiers program, which is managed at Marshall Space Flight Center and aims to explore the solar system through medium-class robotic spacecraft missions.

Origins, Spectral Interpretation, Resource Identification and Security-Regolith Explorer
(OSIRIS-Rex) is due to deliver the capsule at the U.S. Department of Defense’s Utah
Test and Training Range, about 80 miles southwest of Salt Lake City.

OSIRIS-REx is the first U.S. spacecraft to rendezvous, study, and return a pristine sample of an asteroid. This unprecedented look at Bennu will help NASA gather information for robotic and human missions, including those with NASA’s Space Launch System to deep space destinations, according to America’s space agency.

OSIRIS-REx arrived at the asteroid Bennu in 2018, collected its sample in 2020, and has been on a path back to Earth since 2021. After it delivers the sample today, the spacecraft will move on to its next destination, Apophis, an S-type asteroid that will come within 20,000 miles of Earth in 2029.

The sample capsule being delivered by OSIRIS-REx contains regolith from Bennu that
may contain the molecular precursors to the origin to life and Earth’s oceans.

Solveig Irvine is mission manager for OSIRIS-REx at Marshall Space Flight Center. She said her team and others have been practicing and preparing for every step of the return process. “We have a team that’s ready to bag the sample and take it to temporary clean room onsite, then it will be transferred to the curation team at Johnson Space Center,” Irvine said in a story published by the Redstone Rocket.

The curation team will preserve about 75 percent of the sample for future scientists to study, she said. The remaining 25 percent will be studied by NASA’s team of scientists and its international partners.

The asteroid sample will also allow NASA to determine Bennu’s physical and chemical properties, which will be critical to know in the event of an impact mitigation mission. Bennu has been determined to be one of the most potentially hazardous asteroids, as it
has a relatively high probability of impacting the Earth late in the 22nd century.

That probability makes Irvine’s job at Marshall Space Flight Center that much more important. In Irvine’s role as OSIRIS-REx mission manager, she almost serves like a mission parent, making sure everyone has what they need when they need it.

“Mission managers are the interface between the project and NASA headquarters, making sure they’re meeting their budget, technical, schedule and level 1 science goals,” Irvine said. “There’s a lot of checkboxes, making sure NASA headquarters knows what’s going on, all the documentation is ready, and that we’re prepared for anything that could happen, because that’s when we’re successful.”

NASA’s live coverage of the capsule landing will start at 9 a.m. today. It will be broadcast on NASA TV, the NASA app, and nasa.gov.

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