NASA spacecraft, asteroid sample begin 200 million mile return to Earth

OSIRIS-REx launched in 2016 to grab Bennu asteroid sample; will return in 2023

NASA asteroid sample to begin 200 million mile journey back to Earth

A spacecraft is beginning its 200 million mile journey back to Earth on Monday after taking samples from an asteroid.

The National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) launched the OSIRIS-REx mission in 2016, in which a spacecraft traveled to an asteroid near the earth to collect a small sample of rubble for research.

The spacecraft successfully touched down on asteroid Bennu in October of 2020, a year after orbiting the asteroid in search of a safe landing spot.

Throughout the year leading up to its brief touchdown, OSIRIS-REx took increasingly detailed images of the asteroid to find a site. When the mission was originally developed, NASA assumed that Bennu would have a mostly smooth surface with lots of dirt, and perhaps some rocks. What they found when OSIRIS-REx reached the surface was a body littered with rocks and boulders -- so it was difficult to find a safe landing site for the spacecraft.

To make things even more challenging, OSIRIS-REx had to use artificial intelligence to essentially determine by itself if it was safe to do the maneuver due to the delay in time it takes for communication to move between the spacecraft and Earth.

Osiris-Rex took 4 1/2 hours to make its way down from its tight orbit around Bennu, following commands sent far in advance by ground controllers in Colorado. Bennu’s gravity was too low for the spacecraft to land -- the asteroid is just 1,670 feet across -- so it had to reach out with its 11-foot robot arm to grab pieces of Bennu.

The University of Arizona’s Heather Enos, deputy scientist for the mission, described it as “kissing the surface with a short touch-and-go measured in just seconds.”

More: NASA touches an asteroid: What to know about OSIRIS-REx mission

Now, after grabbing the largest extra terrestrial sample to be returned to Earth since the Apollo moon landings, OSIRIS-Rex is firing its thrusters Monday to begin it’s 2-year trip back to Earth. The spacecraft is expected to land in Utah on Sept. 24, 2023.

Related: NASA rocket launch could be visible in Michigan sky Monday night

About the Authors:

Cassidy Johncox is a senior digital news editor covering stories across the spectrum, with a special focus on politics and community issues.

Local 4 meteorologist Paul Gross was born in Detroit and has spent his entire life and career right here in southeast Michigan. Paul has researched, written and produced eight half-hour documentaries for WDIV, as well as many science, historical and environmental stories.