Inside NASA’s Groundbreaking Mission to Land a Spacecraft on a Moving Asteroid

NASA used a daring spacecraft maneuver to collect a sample from an ancient asteroid that may offer insights into the making of the solar system and life on Earth.

Artist concept of OSIRIS-REx at asteroid Bennu, a remnant from the dawn of the solar system that may hold clues to the origins of life. Credit: NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center/Conceptual Image Lab

Preparing for Contact

At the planning level, the OSIRIS-REx mission underwent rigorous testing and analysis, explained Dr. Dolan Highsmith, Senior Project Engineer at The Aerospace Corporation. The intense technical scrutiny by the team proved invaluable as demonstrated by the mission’s on-going success in meeting its objectives thus far.

One Mission, Multiple Objectives

On Oct. 20, the OSIRIS-REx spacecraft successfully collected dust and pebbles from the surface of Bennu for delivery to Earth in 2023. The OSIRIS-REx mission’s other key science objectives include mapping the asteroid, documenting the sample site, and returning a sample of Bennu’s surface for analysis on Earth. While the mission is also tasked with measuring the orbit deviation caused by non-gravitational forces (i.e., the Yarkovsky effect), it will also shed light on the accuracy of our ground-based observations of Bennu by comparing them to data collected by the spacecraft in-situ.

What’s Next for OSIRIS-REx

OSIRIS-REx is now on standby near Bennu until March of 2021, at which time it will commence its long voyage home to the Utah Test and Training Range in 2023. With the sample collection portion of the OSIRIS-REx mission now complete, Aerospace will serve in a support and oversight capacity to the mission for the next three years, at which time Highsmith expects to resume his involvement in the months before the spacecraft’s return. Aerospace will also remain involved in other NASA/Goddard Science Mission operations by assisting with tasks and analyses for other space science operations during this time.

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