NASA gears for the historic return of asteroid Bennu’s sample

The sample return capsule is on its way back to Earth and will land in the Utah desert on September 24, 2023.
Mrigakshi Dixit
Asteroid Bennu.
Asteroid Bennu.


In 1999, astronomers discovered Bennu (101955 Bennu), a small near-Earth asteroid. Almost decades later, an Earth-bound spacecraft touched down on the asteroid's surface. On October 20, 2020, NASA's OSIRIS-REx spacecraft successfully descended to the surface and collected dust and rocks. 

This ancient relic contains information about the early days of our solar system. According to NASA, organic molecules in Bennu's soil could shed light on the origins of life on Earth.

Scientists eagerly await the spacecraft's sample return of Bennu to unravel the past secrets. The return capsule is on its way back to Earth and will land in the Utah desert on September 24, 2023. 

Although the mission is still months away, the team has begun careful rehearsals to recover samples. NASA is going to great lengths to recover the samples from this daring mission.

If successful, it will be United States' first mission to return an asteroid sample to Earth.

Protecting the sample from contamination 

Returning samples is one of the most difficult challenges of this entire mission. And precision is critical to the success of this mission, particularly the spacecraft's return trajectory and sample capsule recovery. The computer models will help to plan navigation in case of any unprecedented situation arising from weather, solar activity, or even space debris on the return path. This constant monitoring will ensure that the capsule enters the Earth's atmosphere safely.

The team will perform a parachute landing in the Utah desert after the capsule is released from the spacecraft. It will take nearly 13 minutes to land inside the designated area.

During this entire process, the sample capsule needs to be protected from heat, vibrations, and earthly contaminants. 

The sense of urgency is to protect the samples from contamination, as the material must be studied in pristine condition. “There are two things pervasive on Earth: water and biology. Both can severely alter meteorites when they land on the ground and muddle the story told by the sample’s chemistry and mineralogy. A pristine sample could provide insights into the development of the solar system,” said Dr. Jason Dworkin, OSIRIS-REx project scientist at NASA Goddard, in the statement.

Sample to be shifted at a newly built lab

The mission teams in Colorado and Utah have been working on steps to protect the samples from contamination, as well as the safe recovery of the capsule. Following the touchdown, the team will analyze soil and air samples from the capsule's landing area to look for any contaminants. 

After the recovery, the material will be safely stored at the new lab built at NASA’s Johnson Space Center in Houston. The center team is practicing their procedure for unpacking and processing the sample inside glove boxes. 

It is estimated that the capsule will hold about a cup of Bennu's material. Following careful unpacking, the sample will be divided and distributed to the team and other scientists for scientific examination. Some of it would be saved for future research.