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Coloradans help NASA collect asteroid sample in historic space mission

Lockheed Martin Space employees in Littleton built robotic spacecraft OSIRIS-REx and flew it to asteroid Bennu
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Posted at 7:59 AM, Sep 25, 2023

LITTLETON — A capsule carrying a sample of rocks and dust from an asteroid landed successfully in the Utah desert Sunday morning and a Colorado team helped make it possible.

A team of experts at Lockheed Martin Space in Littleton flew OSIRIS-REx, the robotic spacecraft that landed on the asteroid.

Every move the spacecraft made during its journey, which began in 2016, has been controlled by Lockheed Martin Space employees in Littleton.

That’s why all of them were looking forward to Sunday when the most critical part of the mission was scheduled to happen.

“Oh, this day is huge. We've been preparing for this day for years,” said Alec Maestas, a systems engineer at Lockheed Martin Space. “This day has kept us up for nights this month alone.”

Maestas is a member of the team responsible for flying OSIRIS-REx, which they’ve nicknamed “O-Rex.”

Over the past seven years, they’ve carefully navigated the spacecraft.

The first leg of the journey involved landing the spacecraft on the asteroid Bennu.

“That asteroid is an asteroid that is believed to have been around since the start of the solar system,” said Maestas.

The spacecraft landed on the asteroid in October 2020 and collected a sample of rocks and soil from the surface.

A few months later, it began making the long journey back toward earth, along with the sample, which scientists hope will provide clues to some of humanity’s most important questions.

“As a kid and even as an adult, I still ask myself ‘Where did we come from?’” said Ari Vogel, the director of Deep Space Exploration at Lockheed Martin. “A mission like this attempts to unlock those secrets and help us understand where we came from.”

The spacecraft, which was also designed and built by Lockheed Martin, didn’t land on Earth.

Instead, OSIRIS-REx acted more like a delivery driver. It approached Earth and ejected the capsule containing the sample into the atmosphere, where it descended thousands of miles to the ground.

“You could hear a pen drop in the room,” Maestas said, describing the moments before the capsule was scheduled to land.

After successfully, releasing the capsule, the team in Littleton gathered together for the next part of the journey, which was out of their control.

“There's a certain point where we released a capsule and we're just waiting. That’s the hardest part. We can't do anything at this point, and we have to wait and hope,” said Maestas. “There were so many you know, it like points in, you know, that this capsule return could have gone wrong.”

After a few anxious minutes, they finally saw the capsule’s parachute open.

The landing was a success.

NASA said the capsule, along with the rocks and dust from Bennu, landed at 8:52 a.m. at the U.S. Department of Defense’s Utah Test and Training Range near Salt Lake City.

“Fortunately for us, everything went exactly as planned,” said Maestas.

NASA said the sample was taken to a temporary clean room, where a continuous flow of nitrogen will keep out contaminants.

The sample will be taken to NASA’s Johnson’s Space Center in Houston in a couple of days, where scientists will examine it.

As for the OSIRIS-REx spacecraft, it moves on to its next mission, flying to another asteroid.

“The spacecraft is onto its extended mission to go visit the asteroid Apophis, which will rendezvous in June 2029,” said Vogel.

And just like before, the team in Littleton will guide the spacecraft as it journeys into deep space, as they try to find more clues to help unlock life’s greatest mysteries.