The US space probe Osiris-Rex on Monday left the orbit of the asteroid Bennu, from which it collected dust samples last year, to begin its long journey back to Earth.
The probe still has a vast distance to cover before it lands in the Utah desert on September 24, 2023. Osiris-Rex is "now moving away over 600 miles an hour from Bennu, on its way home," Dante Lauretta, head of the mission, said on Nasa's video broadcast of the event.
The spacecraft's thrusters were engaged without incident for seven minutes to put the probe on the correct trajectory home, a journey of 1.4 billion miles (2.3 billion kiometers).
It is carrying more than 60 grams of dust and fragments from the asteroid, the largest sample collected by Nasa since the Moon rocks brought back by the Apollo missions. According to an Associated Press report, while Nasa has returned comet dust and solar wind samples, this is the first time it's gone after pieces of an asteroid. Japan has accomplished it twice, but in tiny amounts.
To achieve this goal, the US space agency launched a high-risk operation in October 2020: the probe came into contact with the asteroid for a few seconds, and a blast of compressed nitrogen was emitted to raise the dust sample which was then captured. Osiris-Rex reached asteroid Bennu in 2018 and spent two years flying near and around it, before collecting rubble from the surface last fall, the Associated Press report explains.
The surprise for Nasa was the probe's arm sank several centimeters into the surface of the asteroid, showing the scientists that "the surfaces of these rubble pile asteroids are very loosely consolidated," said Lauretta.
The whole mission almost came to nought when Nasa realized a few days later that the valve of the collection compartment was failing to close, letting fragments escape into space.
But the precious cargo was finally secured after being transferred to a capsule fixed in the spacecraft's center.
In two and a half years, that capsule will be released a few hours before entry into the Earth's atmosphere, and will be slowed down by a parachute system for its landing.
The samples will then be transported to Nasa's Johnson Space Center in Houston, but 75 percent will be kept intact to be studied by future generations, who will have advanced technologies that have not yet been created, the agency said.
The analysis should help scientists better understand the formation of the solar system and the development of Earth as a habitable planet. The asteroid is an estimated 1,600 feet (490 meters) wide and 4.5 billion years old, the AP report adds. Apart from shedding light on how the planets formed and how life arose on Earth, these samples could also improve Earth’s odds against any incoming rocks.
Osiris-Rex is not the only asteroid mission in the works. Nasa has lots more asteroid projects planned. Set to launch in October this year, a spacecraft named Lucy will fly past swarms of asteroids out near Jupiter, while a spacecraft known as Dart will blast off in November in an attempt to redirect an asteroid as part of a planetary protection test. Then, in 2022, the Psyche spacecraft will take off for an odd, metallic asteroid bearing the same name. None of these missions, however, involve plans to return samples, the AP report explains.
(With inputs from AP and AFP)