Story at a glance

  • NASA’s OSIRIS-REx spacecraft launched from Florida in September 2016 and arrived at the Bennu asteroid in December 2018.
  • The spacecraft spent two years flying near and around the asteroid before collecting rubble from its surface last year.
  • On Monday, the spacecraft launched off the asteroid to begin its 2 1/2-year journey back to Earth.

A NASA spacecraft that explored and collected samples from an asteroid is now heading back to Earth. 

NASA’s OSIRIS-REx spacecraft launched from Florida in September 2016 and arrived at the Bennu asteroid in December 2018, about 200 million miles from Earth. The spacecraft spent two years flying near and around the asteroid before collecting rubble from its surface last year. 


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On Monday, the spacecraft fired its main engines full throttle for seven minutes and thrust away from the asteroid at 600 miles per hour to kick off its 2 1/2-year journey back to Earth with an abundance of rock and dust from the asteroid in tow. 

Researchers hope samples from the ancient asteroid will contain clues to the origins of life on Earth. 

“OSIRIS-REx’s many accomplishments demonstrated the daring and innovate way in which exploration unfolds in real time,” Thomas Zurbuchen, associate administrator for science at NASA, said in a statement“The team rose to the challenge, and now we have a primordial piece of our solar system headed back to Earth where many generations of researchers can unlock its secrets." 

While the spacecraft is about 200 million miles away, it will have to swing around the sun twice to catch up to Earth making its return a 1.4 billion-mile journey. 

Upon its return, a capsule containing the samples of the asteroid will separate from the rest of the spacecraft and enter Earth’s atmosphere. 

If all goes well, the capsule will land at the Utah Test and Training Range on Sept. 24, 2023. 


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Published on May 12, 2021