HUNTSVILLE, Ala. (WHNT) — The folks at Marshall Space Flight Center (MSFC) on Redstone Arsenal are dubbing the next few weeks as “Asteroid Autumn”. That’s because MSFC crews are working on several asteroid-focused missions.

OSIRIS-REx Mission: Capsule to return to Earth

Sunday, September 24th, 2023 will be a big day for the OSIRIS-REx Mission. The capsule of the spacecraft will make a triumphant return to earth, after being in space since 2016.

The goal of the OSIRIS-REx, or Origins, Spectral Interpretation, Resource Identification, Security-Regolith Explorer, mission is to bring a sample from an asteroid back to Earth for testing.

On September 8, 2016, the ORISIS-REx spacecraft was launched into space aboard a United Launch Alliance Atlas V rocket. Then, in October 2020, the spacecraft briefly touched down on the asteroid Bennu, where it collected samples of the surface. Now, scientists are eagerly awaiting the return of the capsule containing the samples.

NASA anticipates the capsule to return to Earth’s surface by landing in a remote section of the desert in Utah, just outside Salt Lake City.

Of course, the mission wouldn’t be possible without the contributions from NASA scientists at Marshall Space Flight Center. OSIRIS-REx is part of the New Frontiers Program at MSFC.

“This is something we’ve been dreaming of and preparing for, for over ten years,” Mission Manager Solveig Irvine said.

She will watch the capsule’s return from Utah.

“Getting to see it come down and getting to see those parachutes deploy is going to be a wonderful and unreal experience,” Irvine said in an interview with News 19 on Monday.

The capsule will contain samples collected from the surface of the Bennu asteroid back in 2020.

“It picked up regolith, which is kind of the surface rubble on the asteroid,” the mission manager said.

Although the mission was successful in collecting samples, it didn’t go quite as planned. When the spacecraft touched down on the surface of Bennu, it sank much deeper than expected, and the surface material was not what scientists thought they would find.

“All the data we had at the time said that it was going to be a sandy-like surface and when we got there, it was not sandy at all,” Irvine said. “So, we had to kind of design things on the fly.”

NASA said the OSIRIS-REx mission is important for many reasons, but perhaps the most important being that it could give humans a better idea of our neighbors in space.

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“Understanding the composition of Bennu is going to help us understand kind of what the microbiology here, the chemistry was here, at Earth, before we had life on Earth,” Irvine said. “As well as what kind of chemistry goes on in space.”

Once the sample capsule touches down in Utah, it will be retrieved for NASA scientists to begin studying it.

A model of the OSIRIS-REx spacecraft.

Although the capsule is returning to Earth, the OSIRIS-REx spacecraft will remain in space. In fact, the spacecraft will be renamed OSIRIS-APEX, and it will begin the journey to another asteroid, called Apothis, by 2029.

NASA will live stream the OSIRIS-REx capsule return here.

Psyche Mission: Getting closer to launch

The Psyche Mission is another asteroid-focused mission that NASA currently has in the works. The Psyche spacecraft will launch on board a SpaceX Falcon Heavy en route to an asteroid also named Psyche.

The launch window for Psyche begins on October 5th, 2023.

Psyche is a unique and metal-rich asteroid that orbits the Sun between Mars and Jupiter. NASA says it will be a multi-year journey from the time of launch to when it begins to orbit the Psyche asteroid.

Brad Zavodsky is a Mission Manager for the Psyche Mission at Marshall Space Flight Center. Zavodsky told News 19 that, unlike the OSIRIS-REx Mission, the Psyche Mission will not land a spacecraft on the surface of the Psyche asteroid.

Instead, it will use various tools from onboard the spacecraft to learn more about the asteroid and its core.

A model of the Psyche Mission spacecraft.

Zavodsky said there will be three main data collection tools on board.

“It has a Gamma Ray and Neutron Spectrometer, a Magnetometer, and two imagers,” he said. “The objective of the Psyche Mission is to try to understand whether the metal asteroid is a planetary core, either a remnant of a planet that had started and then was impacted by colossal impacts early in the formation of the solar system or whether it’s some sort of other planetary body.”

Zavodsky said if Psyche is a planetary core, it could be similar to Earth’s core. He said that information could give them insight into the formation of Earth and the early solar system.

The Psyche Mission is part of the Discovery Program at MSFC.

Deep Space Optical Communications “hitching a ride” on Psyche Mission

“Deep Space Optical Communications (DSOC) is all about using lasers to communicate with further distances away from the planet,” said DSOC Mission Manager, Joel Robinson.

DSOC will operate a mission onboard the Psyche spacecraft for the first two years. Its goal is to take the technology deeper into space than ever before.

“The uniqueness to DSOC is the ability of new pointing requirements and being able to track the spacecraft and being able to communicate with it to uplink information and also to downlink it back to Earth,” Robinson said.

In simple terms, a laser beam from Earth will communicate with the spacecraft while it is in space, and NASA will be able to learn from the data that is communicated via the laser.

“It’s demonstrating the ability to use laser-com on a spacecraft that is moving, because that is going to be key to utilizing that technology, perhaps for future exploration beyond the Moon and maybe even Mars.”

Robinson explained that NASA has a facility just north of San Bernardino, California where the laser is transmitted up to the spacecraft. “Onboard Psyche, it has a trans-receiver so it’s both transmitter and receiver, and so it’s able to receive that information, do its magic and try and send that information back to an observatory near San Diego, and so that’s how that information is sent back and forth.”

“Laser effectively works on other frequencies that radio communications does not,” Robinson said. “What makes it unique, is it’s bandwidth capability, and so we’re talking about being able to move more data within a particular time frame than you could with radio communications.”

“With radio, you would hear certain instructions and things like that, with laser you have to be able to interrogate what you are seeing and being able to turn that into ‘oh, that’s what this information is showing us’.”

Robinson said they hope to learn more about DSOC and laser technology with this mission, so it can aid in future space missions.