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Touchdown! NASA's OSIRIS-REx mission wrapped up Sunday with an asteroid sample return

Update: Touchdown of NASA's OSIRIS-REx asteroid sample return capsule in the desert of Utah at 10:52 a.m. EDT Sunday.

Screaming into Earth's atmosphere Sunday at 7 miles per second, a precious ½-pound sample of rocks and dust from an asteroid should make a soft parachute landing in the Utah desert, giving NASA scientists an unprecedented window in time to study conditions when our sun and planets were forming 4.5 billion years ago.

OSIRIS-REx, the first U.S. mission to collect a sample from an asteroid, gathered 8.8 ounces of material from the surface of asteroid Bennu. That's the most ever "grabbed" by a spacecraft.

NASA OSIRIS-REx return landing

Updates from Sunday's event below:

OSIRIS-REx sample return capsule landing confirmed:

10:52 a.m. EDT: NASA has confirmed that the OSIRIS-REx sample return capsule has successfully touched down in the desert of the Department of Defense's Test and Training Range and Dugway Proving Grounds in Utah.

Sample recovery operations will now get underway. After teams have secured the sample return capsule and delivered it to a clean room, it will be packed up and shipped by a C-17 aircraft to NASA's Johnson Space Center in Houston, Texas.

This concludes NASA's seven-year OSIRIS-REx mission to the asteroid Bennu and back.

Entry, descent, and landing procedure underway:

10:42 a.m. EDT: According to NASA, the return sample capsule has pierced the Earth’s atmosphere, traveling in at about 27,650 mph.

Here's a look at the milestones still to get through over the next 13 minutes:

  • Parachutes will bring the capsule’s descent to a safe landing speed.

  • A drogue parachute designed to provide a stable transition to subsonic speeds will deploy first, about 2 minutes after the capsule enters the atmosphere.

  • Six minutes later – at about 1 mile above the desert – the main chute will unfurl, carrying the capsule the rest of the way to a 36-mile by 8.5-mile area on the military range.

  • At touchdown, the capsule will have slowed to about 11 mph.

  • Finally, just 13 minutes after entering the atmosphere, the capsule will be on Earth for the first time in seven years, awaiting the recovery team’s approach.

Capsule released & sample inbound:

9:22 a.m. EDT: According to NASA, a little over an hour ago, the OSIRIS-REx spacecraft released the sample return capsule to begin its final descent through the Earth's atmosphere. Since then, with the final leg of its journey now underway, the OSIRIS-REx spacecraft has, "fired its engines to divert past Earth toward its new mission to asteroid Apophis and was renamed OSIRIS-APEX."

"Roughly 1,000 feet wide, Apophis will come within 20,000 miles of Earth – less than one-tenth the distance between Earth and the Moon – in 2029. OSIRIS-APEX is scheduled to enter orbit of Apophis soon after the asteroid’s close approach of Earth to see how the encounter affected the asteroid’s orbit, spin rate, and surface," a NASA blog post said.

The OSIRIS-REx sample return capsule is still on schedule to complete a touchdown at 10:55 a.m. EDT. Stay tuned.

— Jamie Groh

Welcome to live coverage:

9:00 a.m. EDT: Good morning, all, and welcome to our Space Team live coverage of the landing attempt of NASA's OSIRIS-REx asteroid sample return mission.

After punching through the atmosphere, the OSIRIS-REx sample return capsule is expected to float down to the Department of Defense's Utah Test and Training Range and Dugway Proving Grounds under a parachute canopy and touchdown at 10:55 a.m. EDT.

Stay tuned for more updates as events progress this morning.

— Jamie Groh

This graphic provided by NASA shows the estimated timeline of events ahead of the planned 10:55 a.m. EDT landing of the agency's OSIRIS-REx asteroid sample return spacecraft in the Utah desert on Sunday morning.
This graphic provided by NASA shows the estimated timeline of events ahead of the planned 10:55 a.m. EDT landing of the agency's OSIRIS-REx asteroid sample return spacecraft in the Utah desert on Sunday morning.

Original story below:

Capsule to make fiery reentry

The OSIRIS-REx sample return capsule will make a fiery atmospheric reentry, reaching peak temperature of 5,000 degrees. During a ½-hour span, engineers expect the capsule to slow from 27,000 mph to 11 mph by the time it floats via parachute to the surface, Sandy Freund, Lockheed Martin’s OSIRIS-Rex program manager, said.

The capsule will leave the spacecraft as an unguided ballistic object that cannot be steered, she said.

NASA officials will unveil the asteroid sample during an Oct. 11 news conference at Johnson Space Center in Houston. Science team members are scheduled to discuss an initial analysis of the rocks and dust.

"NASA built a new OSIRIS-REx Sample Curation Laboratory where curators from the Astromaterials Research and Exploration Science team will manage distribution of samples to scientists around the world over the coming years," a press release said.

"Those scientists seek to learn more about how our planet and solar system formed, as well as the origin of organics that may have led to life on Earth. A portion of the sample will also be reserved for research decades from now, utilizing technologies that will improve over the years," the press release said.

Roughly 20 minutes after the OSIRIS-REx spacecraft releases its sample return capsule on Sunday, the thrusters will fire for a new mission to explore asteroid Apophis in 2029.

Everything you need to know about OSIRIS-REx:

After completing a 200-million-mile return trek, OSIRIS-REx is scheduled to release the 110-pound sample capsule Sunday from 63,000 miles above Earth’s surface. Tucked inside a protective heat shield, this asteroid sample should touch down at 10:55 a.m. EDT at the sprawling, military-controlled Utah Test and Training Range 80 miles southwest of Salt Lake City.

“My team, including myself, will be waiting in a series of helicopters to fly out, welcome the samples to Earth, recover the capsule, document the environment, and then prepare for shipment to NASA's Johnson Space Center," said Dante Lauretta, the mission's principal investigator and a University of Arizona professor of planetary sciences and cosmochemistry.

"We will hopefully arrive on Sept. 25 to begin the process of disassembly, sample extraction and the final campaign of sample analysis," Lauretta said.

Ahead of the event, NASA’s OSIRIS-REx engineers briefly fired the spacecraft's thrusters Sept. 17 to change its velocity by a paltry 7 inches per minute relative to Earth. This final correction maneuver shifted the sample capsule’s predicted landing location eastward nearly 8 miles, aiming at the center of its 36-mile by 8½-mile target zone in the Utah Test and Training Range.

More: Rocket launch schedule: Upcoming Florida launches and landings

Scientists consider Bennu one of the most potentially hazardous near-Earth asteroids in our solar system. It makes its closest approach to our planet every six years — and in 2135, Bennu could pass closer to Earth than the moon, NASA reports.

"The asteroid is about as tall as the Empire State Building and could potentially threaten Earth late in the next century, with a 1‐in‐2,700 chance of impacting our planet during one of its close approaches," an October 2020 NASA press release said.

Probing an asteroid with an 11-foot arm

The Lockheed Martin-built OSIRIS-REx spacecraft blasted off in September 2016 from Cape Canaveral Air Force Station atop a 19-story Atlas V rocket. The probe reached Bennu in December 2018. After mapping the asteroid for almost two years, it collected the sample of rocks and dust during an October 2020 tricky touch-and-go operation.

“We had about an 11-foot-long arm, and on the end of that arm is a round canister that kind of looks like a car air filter. That's what actually made contact with the surface of Bennu," Freund said.

"And when we saw contact, we fired a nitrogen gas bottle to stir up material — and that device kind of works like a reverse vacuum cleaner," Freund said.

OSIRIS-REx embarked on its return voyage to Earth in May 2021. NASA scientists believe Bennu is rich in organic molecules, comprised of chains of carbon bonded with oxygen, hydrogen, and other elements. What's more, Bennu may have water trapped in its minerals.

OSIRIS-REx marks the first time NASA attempted to obtain an asteroid sample. In 2010, Japan's Hayabusa spacecraft brought back flecks of asteroid Itokawa. Then Japan's Hayabusa2 mission brought back about ⅕-ounce of asteroid Ryugu in 2020.

OSIRIS-REx return kicks off 'Asteroid Autumn' for NASA:

This artist's-concept illustration depicts the spacecraft of NASA's Psyche mission near the mission's target, the metal asteroid Psyche.
This artist's-concept illustration depicts the spacecraft of NASA's Psyche mission near the mission's target, the metal asteroid Psyche.

Sunday's spacecraft-sample return marks the first of a trio of groundbreaking September-October-November events that NASA is touting as "Asteroid Autumn." The other two:

Oct. 5: The spacecraft Psyche is scheduled to launch no earlier than 10:38 a.m. EDT from Launch Complex 39A at Kennedy Space Center atop a SpaceX Falcon Heavy triple-core rocket.

Psyche will travel 2.5 billion miles via solar-electric propulsion to reach the asteroid Psyche — the largest metallic object in our solar system — in July 2029 between Mars and Jupiter.

More: 'Asteroid Autumn': NASA's Psyche mission to orbit and study rare metallic asteroid

Nov. 1: NASA’s Lucy spacecraft will fly within 265 miles of Dinkinesh, an asteroid measuring less than ½-mile in diameter, during its dozen-year voyage visiting 10 asteroids.

Last week, NASA released the first photos Lucy snapped of Dinkinesh from 14 million miles away. The asteroid was discovered in 1999.

"NASA has invested in multiple missions that are focused on these richly diverse populations of asteroids, and the unique roles that each of those populations can play in telling the story of our solar system history," NASA's Planetary Science Division Director Lori Glaze said during a media briefing earlier this month.

Rick Neale is a Space Reporter at FLORIDA TODAY (for more of his stories, click here.) Contact Neale at 321-242-3638 or Twitter/X: @RickNeale1

Contact Jamie Groh at and follow her on at @AlteredJamie.

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This article originally appeared on Florida Today: Touchdown! NASA's OSIRIS-REx mission to return an asteroid sample ends