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First NASA craft to retrieve asteroid sample heading back toward Earth

First NASA craft to retrieve asteroid sample heading back toward Earth
© NASA/Glenn Benson

The first NASA spacecraft to collect physical samples from an asteroid for a return mission has left its home for the past two years and is heading back toward Earth.

The OSIRIS-REx spacecraft is currently on its way back from the near-Earth asteroid Bennu, CNN reported Monday. The OSIRIS-REx control room in Littleton, Colo., received signal from OSIRIS-Rex at 4:16 p.m. Eastern that it had fired its thrusters to exit Bennu's orbit.

Dante Lauretta, the mission's principal investigator, told CNN that the occasion is a bittersweet moment. The team is excited to study the samples, Lauretta said, but also sad to leave Bennu after so much time.

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"I'm more emotional than I expected to be," Lauretta said. "It's an amazing sense of pride and accomplishment."

The spacecraft is currently moving away from the asteroid at roughly 600 mph. It will fly by earth around Sept. 24, 2023, and drop a sample containing 2.1 ounces of material collected from Bennu's surface, CNN reports.

If OSIRIS-REx is still in good condition, it will then be sent on a new expedition to study other asteroids.

OSIRIS-REx is about 291 million miles away from Earth. In the next 2 1/2 years, it will circle the sun twice, traveling some 1.4 billion miles.

"I can't wait to see what we learn from the sample when it returns to Earth. Yet, at the same time, we've now said goodbye to this asteroid that we've gotten to know so well over the past couple of years," Sandy Freund, mission operations program manager of the Lockheed Martin Mission Support Area, told CNN.