Artist rendering of OSIRIS-REx readying itself for landing on Bennu. Credit: NASA Goddard/University of Arizona.

NASA’s first-ever sample return mission from an asteroid is on track to bring a handful of primordial rock dust back to Earth. The agency successfully landed a spacecraft on the surface of an asteroid on Oct. 20, achieving a historic milestone for NASA while exciting researchers who seek to better understand our solar system.

“This was an incredible feat … we’ve advanced both science and engineering and our prospects for future missions to study these mysterious ancient storytellers of the solar system,” said Thomas Zurbuchen, associate administrator for NASA’s Science Mission Directorate at the agency’s headquarters in Washington. “A piece of primordial rock that has witnessed our solar system’s entire history may now be ready to come home for generations of scientific discovery, and we can’t wait to see what comes next.”

The spacecraft, named OSIRIS-REx (Origins, Spectral Interpretation, Resource Identification, Security, Regolith Explorer), landed on Bennu, a well-preserved asteroid orbiting more than 200 million miles from Earth. Scientists are keen to study its composition for tell-tale signs of how our solar system formed billions of years ago and gave birth to life on Earth.

The mission took flight from Cape Canaveral on Sept. 8, 2016, and reached orbit around Bennu on Dec. 31, 2018. After a carefully orchestrated, four-hour descent from orbit, the craft maneuvered past a building-sized boulder (aptly named “Mt. Doom”) and touched down in a clearing the size of a small parking lot. On the ground, OSIRIS-Rex fired a burst of nitrogen gas to stir up surface dust and pebbles, capturing more than two ounces in the collection head of an 11-foot robotic arm called the Touch-And-Go Sample Acquisition Mechanism (TAGSAM). Ahead of schedule, the sample was placed in its return capsule after concerns over the material leaking out of the TAGSAM head.

With its precious cargo secured, the return spacecraft now awaits a favorable alignment between Bennu and Earth. The return launch is anticipated in March 2021, with landing slated for Sept. 24, 2023, in the western desert of Utah.

“I’m proud of the OSIRIS-REx team’s amazing work and success to this point,” said NASA’s Associate Administrator for Science Thomas Zurbuchen. “This mission is well positioned to return a historic and substantial sample of an asteroid to Earth, and they’ve been doing all the right things, on an expedited timetable, to protect that precious cargo.”