How NASA Will Study the Asteroid Bennu Samples –
OSIRIS-REx continues the amazing legacy of exploring the solar system through sample return. We started out with the Apollo missions, where we had astronauts on the surface of the Moon, collecting a wide range of materials which provided unprecedented insights into the formation of our closest neighbor in space. We've seen comet dust returned from the Stardust mission and asteroid particles returned by two Japanese missions, Hayabusa and Hayabusa2.
And OSIRIS-REx goes beyond those other missions, especially Stardust and the Hayabusa programs, by bringing back a lot of sample. We're bringing back, we estimate, about 250 grams of material, about the size of a coffee cup full of this precious, pristine, carbonaceous asteroid sample.
The OSIRIS-REx spacecraft is currently on its way back to Earth right now. On September 24th, 2023, it will release the sample return capsule and that will land in the Utah desert. We will go out into the field, get the sample, take some soil samples and air samples for contamination knowledge, and then bring the sample return capsule to a temporary cleanroom at the Utah Test and Training Range.
There, we will actually take off the heat shield, backshell, and some other components for safety. And inside of that is what we call a sample canister. Sample return capsule is kind of like a nesting doll, we have these multiple layers of protection. And then that sample canister will have a nitrogen flow put on it, what we call a nitrogen purge. And with that nitrogen purge to protect the sample, to keep any incursion of terrestrial atmosphere coming into that canister, it will be flown from Utah here to Houston, Texas.
The Astromaterials curators at NASA Johnson are the best in the world. They are fantastic at preserving material. The samples will be in a special custom-built cleanroom. The samples themselves will be inside of a of a nitrogen filled glovebox, and inside of that, they'll be stored in separate containers for allocation. The first samples will come out for the science team to describe what we've seen and produce a catalog within six months so that researchers around the world can write their own proposals to request sample.
Oh, I am going to be so excited to see that sample and see how much we actually brought back from asteroid Bennu. It's been a really exciting journey from launch back to sample return. That's a seven-year journey, seven-year process, and at that time I will have been on the mission for about seven years. And so it's going to be a wonderful culmination to this adventure of OSIRIS-REx.
I joined OSIRIS-REx and became part of the mission about three years ago. It's been really incredible for me because I watched this mission launch on my cell phone when I was a postdoc. I heard about it get selected before I applied for my Ph.D. program, and I remember thinking like, oh, you know, 12 years it's going to come back. I wonder where I'll be? And it's so amazing to be here and be part of it playing what feels like to me a very important role in it is really incredible.
I've been waiting since 2004 for an asteroid sample return mission. It's been the majority of my career getting ready for sample return. In some ways, a blink of an eye since launch happened. In other ways, it's been a very long time waiting for this precious sample to come back. It's going to be an emotional, joyous, gut-wrenching event all at the same time. I can't wait.