We just got the first view of NASA’s OSIRIS-REx probe carrying its asteroid sample toward Earth.
The European Space Agency’s (ESA) Optical Ground Station telescope in the Canary Islands captured a pixelated snapshot of OSIRIS-REx on September 16, eight days before the spacecraft’s sample capsule was scheduled to land in the Utah desert.
OSIRIS-REx was 2.9 million miles (4.66 million kilometers) from Earth when the image was taken. So solving the problem was a major breakthrough for the 3.3-foot (1 meter)-wide telescope, which was originally designed to track space junk and test laser communications technology.
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“This image is a combination of 90 individual images, each 36 seconds long,” ESA officials said. he wrote in a statement On Thursday (September 21).
They added: “They are combined in a way that takes into account the motion of the spacecraft, which does not travel in a straight line, causing the background stars to bend and distort and appear to be stretched.”
OSIRIS-REx was launched in September 2016, on a mission to capture a large sample of the near-Earth asteroid Bennu and return it to Earth. The probe picked up about 8.8 ounces (250 grams) of material from the space rock in October 2020, and began its return journey toward its home planet seven months later.
That journey is almost over. If all goes according to plan, OSIRIS-REx will launch its sample capsule at 6:42 a.m. EDT (1042 GMT) on Sunday (September 24), and the instruments will land quietly under parachutes a little over four hours later.
The sample will then be transported to NASA’s Johnson Space Center in Houston, which will curate the materials and oversee their distribution to scientists around the world.
These researchers will analyze the asteroid gravel in detail, to learn more about the early days of the solar system and the role that carbon-rich asteroids like Bennu may have played in delivering the essential elements of life to Earth billions of years ago.
It’s just a sample of the capsule that will descend to Earth on Sunday. The OSIRIS-REx spacecraft will continue to fly to the potentially dangerous asteroid Apophis. The probe will reach that second space rock in 2029, and will take its measurements in an extended mission known as OSIRIS-APEX.
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