OSIRIS-REx, NASA's mission to asteroid Bennu

Highlights

  • OSIRIS-REx collected a sample of Bennu in 2020 and will return it to Earth in 2023.
  • Asteroids like Bennu are very old and may have brought water and the building blocks of life to ancient Earth.
  • We need sample return missions because some lab experiments can only be done on Earth.

Why do we need a sample from asteroid Bennu?

Our solar system is filled with countless asteroids, comets, and other small worlds left over from the disk of dust and gas that formed the planets 4.5 billion years ago. We think some of these worlds slammed into early Earth, bringing water and organics here that formed the basis of life as we know it.

On Earth, weather and geological processes constantly alter the surface. But that's not the case on asteroids, which have remained largely unchanged. By studying them, we can see what our infant solar system was like.

Although modern spacecraft instruments can tell us a lot about other worlds, there are certain kinds of experiments that can only be done on Earth.

What we really need is a sample, so OSIRIS-REx—which stands for Origins, Spectral Interpretation, Resource Identification, Security, Regolith Explorer—will bring us one in 2023. The spacecraft launched in September 2016, arrived at Bennu in December 2018, and successfully collected a sample in October 2020.

What is OSIRIS-REx doing now? 

OSIRIS-REx left Bennu in May 2021 to begin its long journey back to Earth. In 2023, it will drop the sample collection capsule containing material from Bennu into Earth's atmosphere. The capsule will land via parachute in the Utah desert.

How much does OSIRIS-REx cost? 

The OSIRIS-REx mission is projected to cost $1.16 billion over 15 years. We have additional context to help you fully understand this number.

Asteroid Bennu
Asteroid Bennu This mosaic of asteroid Bennu was created using 12 separate images captured in December 2018 by NASA's OSIRIS-REx spacecraft.Image: NASA/Goddard/University of Arizona/Edited by The Planetary Society

How OSIRIS-REx works

OSIRIS-REx is a van-sized spacecraft weighing more than 2 metric tons, with half of that weight in fuel. It has a 3-meter-long sample arm and solar panels that fold back, giving it extra room to maneuver near Bennu’s surface and protect it from debris kicked up during sample collection. The spacecraft's small instrument deck is packed with science gear to study Bennu’s composition, map the surface, and more.

Upon arrival, OSIRIS-REx found that Bennu was much rockier than expected, with no areas that met the mission's original safety criteria for collecting a sample. Fortunately the spacecraft navigates with high precision, comparing the view from its cameras to stored images of Bennu’s landscape. This allowed scientists to settle on a sample location no larger than a few parking spaces.

In October 2020, OSIRIS-REx collected a sample by high-fiving Bennu with cylindrical device called TAGSAM at the end of its sample arm. Upon touching the asteroid, TAGSAM fired a blast of nitrogen gas into the surface,
stirring rocks and soil into a small collection chamber. The operation was so successful, a flap on the sample collection chamber was jammed open by asteroid material!

What will OSIRIS-REx teach us about defending Earth from asteroids? 

Bennu is a near-Earth asteroid, meaning its orbit carries it close to Earth. Small worlds like Bennu, which is just 500 meters (a third of a mile) across, can have their orbits altered by small forces like heat emission in ways we don’t fully understand. These forces can add up over time and mean the difference between an asteroid missing Earth or slamming into it. OSIRIS-REx will study one of these forces, called the Yarkovsky effect.

OSIRIS-REx touches Bennu NASA's OSIRIS-REx spacecraft successfully collected a sample from asteroid Bennu on October 20, 2020.Video: NASA Goddard

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Planetary Society involvement

We helped name asteroid Bennu! In 2013, The Planetary Society, University of Arizona, and MIT held a naming contest for OSIRIS-REx's target asteroid, which was formally known as 1999RQ36. We also collected names to travel aboard OSIRIS-REx through our Messages from Earth program. If you sent your name, you can look up your certificate here!

Sample collection is a very important tool for planetary scientists to study our solar system. Find out how we're working to reduce the cost of sample collection with PlanetVac.

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