The capsule is set to land using a parachute in the Utah desert on Sunday at 14:55 GMT. after about 13 minutes of piercing through .the atmosphere at a speed exceeding the speed of sound by about 35 times. concluding a seven-year journey.
Officials at NASA said during a press conference on Friday that the weather conditions are favorable. and the automated spacecraft (Osiris-Rex) is heading to launch .the capsule to return the sample taken from the surface of the asteroid Bennu to Earth as planned. without the need for further flight path adjustments.
Sandra Freund, program manager at Lockheed Martin, which designed the spacecraft and built it. said that the mission directors expect a “direct” landing within the test. and training range in Utah. which is affiliated with the US Army. west of Salt Lake City.
If successful, the Osiris-Rex mission will be the third to return a sample from an asteroid. and it is the largest ever. to be analyzed after two similar missions by .the Japanese space agency over the past 13 years.
The mission is a joint effort between NASA. and scientists at the University of Arizona.
The Osiris-Rex spacecraft collected the sample from the carbon-rich asteroid Bennu. discovered in 1999 .and classified as a “near-Earth object” because it relatively approaches our planet every six years.
Scientists estimate its chances of colliding with Earth at .only one in 2,700 in the late 22nd century.
The diameter of the Bennu asteroid is only 500 meters. which is small compared to the catastrophic Chicxulub asteroid that hit Earth about 66 million years ago. leading to the extinction of dinosaurs.
The Osiris-Rex spacecraft was launched in September 2016 and reached the Bennu asteroid in 2018. spending nearly two years orbiting .the asteroid before getting close enough for its mechanical arm to touch its surface on October 20, 2020.
The spacecraft began its return journey to Earth. covering a distance of 1.2 billion miles. in May 2021.
Upon arrival, the sample will be transported by air to a “clean room” in the test range in Utah for initial examination. and then it will be transferred to NASA‘s Johnson Space .Center in Houston to be divided into smaller samples for use by .about 200 scientists in 60 laboratories around the world.
At the same time. the main part of the Osiris-Rex spacecraft is expected to head for. the exploration of another near-Earth asteroid.