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NASA’s asteroid probe will be headed home soon with precious cargo on board

Published Jan 27th, 2021 9:40PM EST

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  • NASA’s OSIRIS-REx asteroid probe has been orbiting the space rock known as Bennu for many months now.
  • The spacecraft successfully gathered samples from the massive asteroid and will return that material to Earth so scientists can study it.
  • NASA just announced its timeframe for departing from the asteroid.

Despite a global pandemic dramatically changing the daily lives of, well, just about everyone, NASA had an extremely busy year in 2020. One of the ongoing missions that NASA had to continue to work on was the OSIRIS-REx asteroid probe, which has been in orbit around the massive space rock called Bennu for well over a year now. The mission included a sample-collection maneuver, and with much of its hardest work out of the way, NASA is now ready to talk about when the probe will head back to Earth.

In a new blog post on its website, NASA reveals that it’s planning on directing the probe to begin its journey back to Earth on May 10th, 2021. However, it will be quite some time before we see the fruits of its labor.

Sending a spacecraft to an asteroid is no easy feat. Entering orbit around it is harder still, and collecting a sample of its material? Well, that’s just about the most difficult thing you can ask a remotely-operated machine to do. Due to the incredible distance between Earth and Bennu, real-time control is out of the question, so the spacecraft has to be commanded to carry out a maneuver and then its handlers have to sit back and wait to see if it managed to pull it off.

In the case of OSIRIS-REx, the spacecraft performed incredibly well, collecting samples of the asteroid’s material and returning to a safe distance without destroying itself in the process. But collecting that material is only half the job, and the mission won’t truly be a success until it can deliver those samples to NASA back on Earth.

To do that, OSIRIS-REx has to make the trip back home, and that’s a very, very long walk. Even when timing its departure from Bennu so that it has the shortest trip, it’s still going to take over two years for the probe to make it back to Earth. Its expected delivery date is September 24th, 2023.

“Leaving Bennu’s vicinity in May puts us in the ‘sweet spot,’ when the departure maneuver will consume the least amount of the spacecraft’s onboard fuel,” NASA’s Michael Moreau said in a statement. “Nevertheless, with over 593 miles per hour (265 meters per second) of velocity change, this will be the largest propulsive maneuver conducted by OSIRIS-REx since the approach to Bennu in October 2018.”

What will the samples look like? What will scientists be able to learn from them? We’re not sure… yet. However, if the samples collected by Japan’s asteroid probe are any indication, Bennu’s dust and debris may hold some very interesting secrets.

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