OSIRIS-REx team completes final test before asteroid sample delivery

A man crouches next to a replica of the flying saucer-like sample capsule.

OSIRIS-REx principal investigator Dante Lauretta examines a replica of the sample capsule, consisting of the heatshield (white) and the back shell (tan), following a successful drop test.

Chris Richards/University Communications

Members of NASA's OSIRIS-REx asteroid sample recovery team gathered in Utah's West Desert this week to participate in final preparations for the arrival of the first U.S.-collected asteroid sample, slated to land on Earth later this month.

A helicopter hauling cargo

A replica of the sample capsule safely enclosed in a cargo net dangles underneath a helicopter during delivery to the temporary clean room.

Chris Richards/University Communications

The team includes mission principal investigator Dante Lauretta, a University of Arizona Regents Professor of Planetary Sciences, and Anjani Polit, a senior systems engineer with the university's Lunar and Planetary Laboratory who serves as mission implementation systems engineer for the OSIRIS-REx mission.

A mockup of the OSIRIS-REx sample capsule was dropped from an aircraft Wednesday and landed at the drop zone at the Department of Defense's Utah Test and Training Range in the desert outside Salt Lake City. This was part of the mission's final major test prior to the Sept. 24 arrival of the actual capsule containing a sample of asteroid Bennu collected in space almost three years ago.

"We are now mere weeks away from receiving a piece of solar system history on Earth, and this successful drop test ensures we're ready," said Nicola Fox, associate administrator of NASA's Science Mission Directorate in Washington, D.C.

The drop test followed a series of earlier rehearsals – focused on capsule recovery, spacecraft engineering operations and sample curation procedures – conducted in the spring and earlier this summer.

NASA's OSIRIS-REx spacecraft collected a sample from asteroid Bennu in October 2020. Stowed safely inside the spacecraft's sample return capsule, it will land in Utah via parachute.

Researchers will study the sample in the coming years to learn about how our planet and solar system formed and about the origin of organics that may have led to life on Earth.

A smiling man in front of an army hangar

OSIRIS-REx principal investigator Dante Lauretta in front of a hangar on Michael Army Airfield on the Dugway Proving Ground after two successful days of practicing sample capsule recovery.

Chris Richards/University Communications

"We're going back to the dawn of the solar system; we're looking for clues why Earth is a habitable world," Lauretta said during a news conference following the successful drop test. "What is life, how did it originate, and why was Earth the place where it occurred? Bennu is so rich in carbonaceous compounds. We believe that we bring material that may literally be representative of the seeds of life that these asteroids delivered at the beginning of our planet."

Lauretta said the OSIRIS-REx team was convinced the spacecraft was going to touch down on a solid surface, but Bennu's surface responded more like a fluid. He likened the process to punching a ball pit at a children's playground.

"I call Bennu the 'trickster asteroid.' It has challenged us every step of the way,'" Lauretta said.  "The good news is that due to that soft surface, we collected an enormous amount of material. We believe that we have at least four times as much material in that sample return capsule as we promised NASA when we designed the mission – over 8 ounces, or about 250 grams – and boy, is the science team excited to get that."

Lauretta said he is immensely proud of the efforts the team has poured into the endeavor.

People gather around a mock capsule

Members of the sample curation team wheel the capsule into the cleanroom after it was delivered from its landing spot in the desert.

Chris Richards/University Communications

"Just as our meticulous planning and rehearsal prepared us to collect a sample from Bennu, we have honed our skills for sample recovery," he said.

The capsule will enter Earth's atmosphere on Sept. 24 at 10:42 a.m. EDT (7:42 a.m. MST), traveling at about 27,650 mph. NASA's live coverage of the capsule landing starts at 10 a.m. EDT (7 a.m. MST) and will air on NASA TV, the NASA app and the agency website.

Once located and packaged for travel, the capsule will be flown to a temporary clean room on the military range, where it will undergo initial processing and disassembly in preparation for its journey by aircraft to NASA's Johnson Space Center in Houston, where the sample will be documented, cared for and distributed for analysis to scientists worldwide.

"One of the best parts about being at a university and being able to lead a program like this is training the next generation," Lauretta said, noting that more than 200 undergraduate and graduate students that have contributed to the mission, working on science, engineering, marketing, graphic arts, video production and business management – "all of the skills that it takes to bring a mission like this to a close."

Now, an "army of graduate students is waiting to get involved in the sample science program," Lauretta said.

"It's really a great entry point for young people to get involved in science," he said. "They're super excited just to think that we've got these pieces of an asteroid."