How Do We Return Samples from Space? | Space


NASA’s Genesis mission, which launched on Aug. 8, 2001, successfully captured solar wind particles and returned them to Earth on Sept. 8, 2004. Following the release of the sample return capsule, however, an off-nominal event occurred. “The deceleration sensor inside the capsule had been installed incorrectly, therefore the circuit to deploy the parachutes was not activated,” Freund said.

This caused the sample return capsule to experience a hard landing, rather than a mid-air recovery from a helicopter, which contaminated some – but not all – of the samples that Genesis had collected. New scientific findings still resulted from the mission.

“That was definitely on the forefront of the team’s minds, ensuring the design for OSIRIS-REx was correct.”

So, How Does it All Work?

Beyond engineering clever ways to collect samples, getting those safely through Earth’s atmosphere is a complex challenge with each of these missions. For OSIRIS-REx, it’s been cruising back to Earth after leaving asteroid Bennu on May 10, 2021. In the time between then and landing in September, the team has been performing a series of trajectory correction maneuvers as OSIRIS-REx gets closer to Earth. These adjustments to the spacecraft position it just right to ensure that the capsule is optimally aligned for re-entry.

Once the mission team has decided it’s safe to release the capsule in the early morning hours of Sept. 24, 2023, that’s when the real excitement begins!

That morning, the team will conduct it’s final “go, no-go” meeting, which includes representatives from Lockheed Martin, NASA, the Utah Test and Training Range (UTTR), the EDL team and the navigation team. “We fully expect that we’ll be ‘go’ at that point, so we’ll then head to console and send the “go” command to the spacecraft,” Freund said. “We will have a few indications that release was successful, but we also expect to hear a callout from the Space Force, saying they’re…

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