OSIRIS-REx: Learn more about the mission that is bringing asteroid samples back to Earth

Scientists at the University of Arizona are on pins and needles, ready to make monumental discoveries in the coming weeks.

The scientists are part of a decade-long NASA mission to study asteroids, and the samples are set to arrive back on Earth on Sept. 24, 2023, according to the mission's page on the NASA website.

Here's what to know about the mission, which involves scientists at the University of Arizona.

What's the mission all about?

OSIRIS-REx, according to NASA, stands for "Origins, Spectral Interpretation, Resource Identification, and Security-Regolith Explorer."

The mission, according to NASA officials, consisted of a trip to the asteroid Bennu, and involved the collection of rock and dust sample on the asteroid's surface.

"This mission will help scientists investigate how planets formed and how life began, as well as improve our understanding of asteroids that could impact Earth," read a portion of NASA's website.

"This is a gift to the world," said Dante Lauretta with UArizona. "We're going back to the dawn of the the Solar System, and why Earth is the jewel of the Solar System."

When did the mission start?

The mission, according to NASA officials, launched from Florida on Sept. 8, 2016 towards Bennu.

We reported in October 2020 that the probe made it to Bennu, and descended on the asteroid to collect the sample. In that same month, NASA officials announced that the spacecraft collected more material from the asteroid than the minimum of two ounces (60 grams) that was set for the mission. 

The statement, however, also noted that based on images captured by an onboard camera, those involved with the mission believe that some of the particles collected were slowly leaking from the sample collector, due to a portion of the collector's lid being slightly wedged open. At the time, officials said those involved with the mission are focused on stowing the collected sample in order to keep it safe during the return mission.

The samples, according to a NASA statement, was deemed to be successfully stowed by Oct. 28, 2020. We previously reported that about 250 grams of samples are onboard the spacecraft.

We reported in April 2021 that the space probe made a final flyover of Bennu before its return to Earth. The return trip began in May 2021.

So, what happens now?

The samples are expected to land somewhere in Utah on Sept. 24.

On that day, the team will make a "Go/No Go" decision at 2:00 a.m., and if it's a go, the spacecraft will hit the atmosphere, deploy a parachute, and eventually land in the desert, where the samples will be recovered.

Some of the samples collected will be tested at UArizona labs.

"Each little grain is going to be torn apart. We're going to tear apart that sample molecule by molecule, and understand it in incredible detail," said Dr. Laurie Leshin with the Jet Propulsion Laboratory. "Each sample is only this big. You can slice that into thousands of pieces and send it to labs on 6 continents. There's no limit to what you can do if you get that stuff back on Earth." 

NASA officials will reportedly keep 75% of the samples in storage for future generations, whom might discover ways to test the rocks in ways we can't even comprehend. 

Scientists have collected meteorite samples before. What makes this any different?

Meteorites that fall from the sky are tarnished by rain, wind and time. Samples from Bennu will be different.

"They return a sample from an asteroid we know exactly what asteroid it comes from, where on the asteroid it comes from, and it's returned very, very pristine," said Thomas Zega with UArizona Planetary Sciences.