NASA’s first asteroid sample is set to return to Earth on September 24, regardless of the prevailing weather conditions. The OSIRIS-REx team is closely collaborating with U.S. Army meteorologists in Utah to plan for all potential scenarios.
Last year, the OSIRIS-REx spacecraft successfully collected approximately 9 ounces of rocks and dirt from the asteroid Bennu. Transporting these samples, a tire-size capsule will land at the Department of Defense’s Utah Test and Training Range, marking a significant achievement in space exploration.
Unlike the Crew Dragon spacecraft, which has the flexibility to delay a landing due to unfavorable weather conditions, OSIRIS-REx cannot abort a landing attempt as it is returning from deep space. Consequently, the landing date remains non-negotiable, as the Earth intersects Bennu’s orbit exclusively on September 24th each year, providing the only opportunity for a successful return.
To ensure a smooth landing, the West Desert Test Center, an Army facility, is responsible for monitoring and forecasting the weather conditions for the capsule’s arrival. This is not their first involvement in such a critical task; they previously forecasted NASA’s Stardust comet sample in 2006, highlighting their expertise in this field.
One particular concern that arises during planning is the possibility of rain and muddy conditions on the former lakebed where the capsule is expected to land. Excessive rainfall could potentially hinder ground vehicles from reaching the site and could compromise the integrity of the precious sample.
Wind is another significant hazard that needs to be taken into account. Ideal wind speeds for parachute deployment are below 10 mph, and any strong winds could divert the parachutes off course, posing a risk to the mission’s success.
To assess atmospheric conditions, forecasters will release weather balloons to measure winds and moisture levels at various altitudes. Additionally, they will provide crucial cloud deck information to aid helicopter recovery pilots during the sample retrieval process.
Monitoring the capsule’s journey back to Earth will involve multiple tracking assets and aircraft. Ground telescopes, an Air Force tracking station in Maui, radar tracking antennas at the Utah Test and Training Range, infrared cameras, and Department of Defense cameras and radar will all collaborate to ensure a smooth and secure return.
Looking ahead, after successfully collecting samples from Bennu, the OSIRIS-REx spacecraft will continue its mission to survey the asteroid Apophis during its anticipated fly-by of Earth in 2029. This ongoing research opens doors to further exploration and enhances our understanding of our solar system.
As September 24 approaches, the anticipation heightens, and the OSIRIS-REx team, along with Army meteorologists, will closely monitor weather conditions to ensure a successful, safe return of NASA’s first asteroid sample.
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