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Seven Years in Space: NASA’s OSIRIS-REx and the Asteroid Sample Return

by | Sep 20, 2023 at 7:58PM | Science


NASA Goddard Space Flight Center, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

NASA’s spacecraft is set to make a historic return to Earth after seven years in space, carrying with it the very first sample of an asteroid collected in the vacuum of outer space. This mission, known as OSIRIS-REx (Origins, Spectral Interpretation, Resource Identification, Security, Regolith Explorer), marks a significant achievement in space exploration.

About the asteroid, Bennu

Bennu, a carbon-rich near-Earth asteroid, has captivated scientists’ imaginations for decades. With a diameter of approximately 500 meters, this ancient space rock has drawn interest due to its composition, potential impact hazard, and the invaluable information it holds about the origins of our solar system.

One of the main objectives of the OSIRIS-REx mission was to study Bennu up close and personal. After a meticulous survey, the spacecraft successfully touched down on Bennu’s rugged surface in October 2020. Its specialized robotic arm, TAGSAM (Touch-and-Go Sample Acquisition Mechanism), collected a pristine sample of regolith, or surface material, during its brief touchdown.

Sample release

After years of careful planning and scientific inquiry, OSIRIS-REx is now returning to Earth with its precious cargo. The sample return capsule, containing the asteroid samples, is expected to make its dramatic re-entry into Earth’s atmosphere in September 2023. Upon re-entry, the capsule will blaze across the sky, eventually landing safely in the Utah desert. This return marks the culmination of a mission that has pushed the boundaries of space exploration and brought us closer to understanding the cosmos.

Samples studied?

Once the sample is safely on Earth, the real scientific adventure begins. The collected material from Bennu will be analyzed and studied by a team of experts from NASA and around the world. Researchers hope to unlock a treasure trove of information about the asteroid’s composition, its history, and its role in the formation of our solar system.



The OSIRIS-REx mission promises to provide insights into the ancient building blocks of our solar system and the processes that shaped the planets, including Earth, billions of years ago. This knowledge has the potential to reshape our understanding of the cosmos and our place within it.

Previous samples 

While OSIRIS-REx’s mission is undoubtedly groundbreaking, it is not the first time that space agencies have undertaken the challenge of collecting samples from celestial bodies. NASA’s Apollo missions brought back lunar samples from the Moon, while Japan’s Hayabusa missions returned samples from asteroids Itokawa and Ryugu. These endeavors have expanded our understanding of the solar system and the universe.

OSIRIS-REx stands as a testament to human curiosity and determination. It represents our relentless pursuit of knowledge and our commitment to uncovering the secrets of the universe. As we eagerly await the return of OSIRIS-REx and its precious cargo from Bennu, we are reminded of the incredible achievements that have come from our exploration of the cosmos and the promise of even greater discoveries in the future.


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