NASA’s OSIRIS-REx spacecraft will pass Earth this weekend, returning a sample gathered from the potentially hazardous asteroid Bennu on Sunday (Sept. 24). Fingers crossed that space enthusiasts may be able to watch the first part of this historic sample return mission — the first time NASA has collected material from an asteroid and brought it home — live and for free online. That is if all goes according to plan for Italian astrophysicist and astronomer Gianluca Masi and his Virtual Telescope Project.
“I’m very pleased and excited to announce that the Virtual Telescope Project will try to share, in real-time, images of NASA’s OSIRIS-REx spacecraft 12 hours before it releases its precious Sample Return Capsule with samples of asteroid Bennu,” Masi said in an email to Space.com. The livestream is set to start at 7 p.m. EDT (2300 GMT) on Saturday (Sept. 23). Watch it live here at Space.com or on the Virtual Telescope Project’s website. (Be aware that weather conditions or other factors could affect the project being able to observe OSIRIS-REx probe from the ground.)
OSIRIS-REx launched from Cape Canaveral Space Force Station in Florida in September 2016 atop a United Launch Alliance Atlas V rocket, beginning what would be a two-year voyage to the 1,720-foot (524 meter) wide asteroid 101955 Bennu. After reaching the asteroid in August 2018, the spacecraft spent another two years observing Bennu’s surface.
When this survey was completed, the spacecraft got close enough to the surface of Bennu to recover material — and almost got swallowed up in the process. In 2021, with the Bennu samples stored in a sample return capsule, OSIRIS-REx fired up its propulsion system and began a 1.2 billion-mile (1.9 billion-kilometer) trip back home.
When it arrives this weekend, the spacecraft will jettison its sample return canister and then leave the vicinity of our planet again, heading out to a different asteroid. The canister should land on the surface of Earth in the western United States in the desert region around the U.S. military’s Utah Test and Training Range.
Comment: The retrieval of the OSIRIS-REx spacecraft should rank right up there with the Mars landers in importance, although it surely won’t be as photogenic. Certainly not as exciting as a launch. Dr. Gianluca Masi at the Virtual Telescope Project is sure geeking out over it on the above 30 minute video showing only various views of a far away point of light. NASA will be live streaming the landing starting at 10 AM tomorrow morning. There should at least be some excitement in the control room.
This will be quite an accomplishment and, as I believe, will affirm the future of space exploration as robotic rather than manned. Even eventual Lunar and Mars permanent settlements will be mostly robotic with manned visits being more caretaker than exploratory.