OSIRIS-REx Is On Its Way Home Packed With Asteroid Samples

The NASA OSIRIS-REx spacecraft has spent nearly half a decade in space and has finally departed asteroid Bennu and is on its way back to Earth. NASA has announced that on Monday, May 10 at 4:23 PM EDT the spacecraft fired its main engines full throttle for seven minutes. The firing of its main engines represents the most significant maneuver for the spacecraft since it arrived at Bennu in 2018.

NASA says the throttle burn pushed OSIRIS-REx away from the asteroid at 600 miles per hour. The burn away from the asteroid marked the very first steps on the spacecraft's 2.5-year journey back to Earth. Once it arrives back home, OSIRIS-REx will fire its main engines and fly safely away from Earth on a trajectory that will see the spacecraft circle the sun inside the orbit of Venus. OSIRIS-REx will orbit the sun twice

After making two orbits around the sun, the spacecraft will reach Earth on September 24, 2023. When it returns to Earth, the capsule containing the asteroid fragments will separate from the rest of the spacecraft and enter the Earth's atmosphere. The capsule will parachute to the Utah Test and Training Range in the Utah West Desert, where scientists will retrieve it.

NASA says that the multi-year mission plan for OSIRIS-REx required a dozen navigation engineers who made calculations and wrote computer code to instruct the spacecraft when and how to push itself away from Bennu. After departing the asteroid, the most critical goal of the mission is to get the samples back to Earth safely. Part of that mission planning included planning the future maneuvers that will keep the spacecraft on course through the journey.

NASA also notes the navigation cameras that were used to orient the spacecraft in relation to Bennu were turned off on April 9 after taking the last images of the asteroid. Currently, NASA is using the Deep Space Network of global spacecraft communication facilities to steer the spacecraft. Engineers are using measurements of how long it takes radio signals to get the spacecraft from Earth to determine its location.