‘I literally broke into tears’: The Scientist’s Greatest Day with OSIRIS-REx

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Nasa Osiris rex

In the annals of space exploration, some moments stand out as truly remarkable, where human dedication and scientific endeavor converge to create history. One such moment unfolded at the U.S. Army’s Dugway Proving Ground, where the atmosphere was electric with anticipation as all eyes were fixed on the return of NASA’s OSIRIS-REx mission’s sample capsule from the far reaches of space. This was not just a successful mission; it was a day that Dante Lauretta, the scientist leading this epic journey, would forever remember as the greatest day in his life.

The OSIRIS-REx Mission: A Bold Vision

To truly appreciate the magnitude of this momentous day, we must first understand the magnitude of the OSIRIS-REx mission itself. The OSIRIS-REx mission (Origins, Spectral Interpretation, Resource Identification and Security – Regolith Explorer) was a testament to human ingenuity and ambition. Launched in 2016 from the Cape Canaveral Space Force Station in Florida, its objective was nothing short of astounding—visit the asteroid Bennu and collect samples from this celestial body for eventual return to Earth.

This mission marked a significant milestone for NASA, being the agency’s first attempt at asteroid sampling. It was also the third such mission globally, following Japan’s Hayabusa-1 and Hayabusa-2 missions. Yet, for Dante Lauretta, the principal investigator for OSIRIS-REx, it was more than a mission; it was a dream nearly two decades in the making.

Two Decades of Dedication

(L-R) Loria Glaze, NASA Planetary Science Division Director, Dante Lauretta, Principle Investigator University of Arizona, Mike Moreau, NASA Recovery Lead, Tim Priser, Chief Engineer for Deep Space Exploration Lockheed Martin and Eileen Standbery, NASA Chief Scientist, answer questions during a press conference after the sample return capsule from NASA’s OSIRIS-REx mission was completed successfully at Dugway, Utah on September 24, 2023. Scientists hope the asteroid sample aboard the spacecraft will provide humanity with a better understanding on the formation of our solar system and how Earth became habitable. (Photo by GEORGE FREY / AFP) (Photo by GEORGE FREY/AFP via Getty Images)

Dante Lauretta’s journey with the OSIRIS-REx mission spanned nearly twenty years, a period marked by meticulous planning, relentless problem-solving, and unwavering patience. As he embarked on this endeavor, he couldn’t have anticipated the rollercoaster of emotions he would experience on the mission’s greatest day.

Anxiety and Anticipation: The Capsule’s Descent

As the OSIRIS-REx mission’s capsule descended through Earth’s atmosphere at an astonishing speed of 27,000 mph (43,450 km/h), the tension was palpable at the Dugway Proving Ground. Four helicopters, operated by NASA and the U.S. Air Force, took off from the Michael Army Air Field, bound for the barren expanses of the Utah Test and Training Range (UTTR). Their mission: to witness the safe return of priceless samples from asteroid Bennu, collected after years of meticulous planning.

Dante Lauretta was among those on the helicopters, his heart pounding with anxiety. As he rode in a recovery helicopter to the capsule’s landing zone, he battled the fear of the unknown. Would the capsule’s two parachutes open as designed? The success of the entire mission hinged on this critical moment.

In Lauretta’s own words, “I was just trying to make sure I didn’t totally break down in front of an international audience, right? It’s like, okay, you got to keep it together.” The weight of two decades of planning and preparation bore down on him. The entire world watched with bated breath as they awaited news of the capsule’s descent.

The Moment of Triumph

From left to right, NASA Sample Return Capsule Science Lead Scott Sandford, NASA Astromaterials Curator Francis McCubbin, and University of Arizona OSIRIS-REx Principal Investigator Dante Lauretta, collect science data, Sunday, Sept. 24, 2023, shortly after the sample return capsule from NASA’s OSIRIS-REx mission landed at the Department of Defense’s Utah Test and Training Range. The sample was collected from the asteroid Bennu in October 2020 by NASA’s OSIRIS-REx spacecraft. Photo Credit: (NASA/Keegan Barber)

Minutes later, the world received the news it had been anxiously waiting for—the main parachute had indeed deployed. The recovery teams breathed a collective sigh of relief. Dante Lauretta, on the other hand, received the news he had longed for—the landing was a resounding success. Tears of joy streamed down his face as he realized that the mission had succeeded against all odds.

“That’s when I just emotionally let it go. You know, tears were streaming down my eyes. I was like, okay, that’s the only thing I needed to hear. From this point on, we know what to do. We’re safe. We’re home. We did it,” Lauretta exclaimed. It was a moment of profound relief and celebration, not just for Lauretta but for the entire OSIRIS-REx team and the scientific community.

The Uncertainty of the Drogue Chute

The uncertainty surrounding the mission was not without reason. Mission teams had been unable to determine if the capsule’s drogue chute had deployed as intended. Drogue parachutes, or drogue chutes, are typically smaller parachutes that deploy from a craft moving at high speeds. They serve to slow the craft, stabilize its movement, or aid in deploying a larger main parachute.

From their vantage points on the ground and in multiple aircraft providing live footage of the capsule’s return, recovery teams were unable to confirm if the 31.5-inch (80-centimeter) drogue chute had deployed at the planned altitude of 102,300 feet (31,181 meters).

During the post-landing press briefing, Mike Moreau, deputy project manager for the OSIRIS-REx mission at NASA Goddard Space Flight Center in Maryland, explained that while his team remained uncertain about the drogue chute’s deployment, it was ultimately inconsequential because the main parachute had successfully deployed. “What we do know is that the main parachute came out,” Moreau stated.

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A New Chapter of Groundbreaking Science

While the capsule’s safe landing marked the end of one phase of the mission, it heralded the beginning of a new chapter—one of groundbreaking science. The rock and dust samples from asteroid Bennu will now be divided among various scientific institutions and space agencies. These samples hold the key to unlocking some of the most profound questions about our cosmic neighborhood.

Scientists around the world will have the opportunity to study these samples and analyze Bennu’s composition, aiming to answer specific questions like:

  • Asteroid Composition:
    • How did Bennu form and evolve? Does it represent a common type of asteroid or a unique one?
    • What minerals and elements are present in the samples? Do they reveal anything about the early solar system environment?
    • Are there any unexpected materials or signatures that could challenge our understanding of asteroid formation?
  • Formation Processes:
    • Did Bennu collide with other objects in the past? Are there signs of internal heating or differentiation?
    • Can the samples help us understand the role of asteroids in the early solar system and the delivery of water and organic molecules to Earth?
  • Organic Molecules:
    • Do the samples contain amino acids, other prebiotic molecules, or complex organic compounds?
    • If so, could they shed light on the origins of life on Earth or the potential for life elsewhere in the solar system?

This research aims to uncover the chemical history of our solar system. The samples could provide insights into how water and even the building blocks of life, such as amino acids, made their way to Earth through asteroid bombardment during the early days of our planet.

The OSIRIS-REx Mission’s Ongoing Quest

Figure 1: NASA’s OSIRIS-REx mission, after returning samples collected from the asteroid Bennu, will get a second life as OSIRIS-APEX to visit the asteroid Apophis in 2029 (image credit: NASA/GSFC/Univ. of Arizona)

While the successful return of the capsule marks a significant milestone, the OSIRIS-REx spacecraft’s mission is far from over. Rebranded as OSIRIS-APEX, it embarks on a new journey to study another near-Earth asteroid, Apophis. This extended mission promises to provide scientists with an up-close exploration of yet another relic from the early solar system.

Conclusion: A Day of Triumph and Emotion

In the vast Utah desert, a remote Army base witnessed a momentous occasion—the triumphant return of the OSIRIS-REx mission’s sample capsule from asteroid Bennu. This mission, nearly two decades in the making, showcased the dedication and perseverance of the scientific community.

The anxiety and uncertainty that hung in the air as the capsule descended through Earth’s atmosphere were met with relief and celebration as the main parachute deployed successfully. Dante Lauretta, the principal investigator for the OSIRIS-REx mission, expressed the overwhelming emotions that engulfed him upon hearing the news.

Acknowledgment and Looking Forward

This blog post celebrates not only the successful return of the OSIRIS-REx capsule but also the tireless dedication of the scientists and engineers who made it possible. The OSIRIS-REx mission serves as a testament to human curiosity, determination, and the quest for knowledge.

As OSIRIS-APEX embarks on its new mission, we look forward to the continued discoveries that will expand our understanding of the universe and the incredible feats that await in the realm of space exploration. It was indeed the greatest day in the life of Dante Lauretta and a momentous day in the history of space exploration—an event that will be remembered for generations to come.

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