Utah Test and Training Range has vital role in OSIRIS-REx recovery mission

  • Published
  • By Micah Garbarino
  • 388th Fighter Wing Public Affairs

HILL AIR FORCE BASE, Utah – Members of the 388th Fighter Wing’s Utah Test and Training Range are playing a key role in recovering NASA’s first-ever asteroid sample return on Sept. 24.

Launched in 2016, the Origins, Spectral Interpretation, Resource Identification, and Security-Regolith Explorer, or OSIRIS-REx, travelled more than 200 million miles from earth to collect samples from the asteroid Bennu

For the last three years, the capsule, which is carrying an estimated 8 ounces of material collected from the asteroid’s surface in 2020, has been making its way home – to a swath of desert on the Utah Test and Training Range. 

“Our day-to-day job, and the vital role of the Utah Test and Training Range, is weapons testing and military training. The OSIRIS-REx recovery is different, and offers us the unique opportunity to use range capabilities as part of a coordinated, interagency mission with huge scientific impacts. It’s exciting for our team,” said Col. Oliver Lause, UTTR commander.

Since before the mission launched, teams from NASA, Lockheed Martin, The University of Arizona, and the UTTR have been focused on Sept. 24, 2023, working to ensure a safe and successful recovery.  

In the early morning hours, a collaborative team monitoring the spacecraft’s approach will make “go/no-go” decision on reentry for the capsule. If there are no complications, the sample capsule will separate from the spacecraft and enter earth’s atmosphere at 8:42 a.m. Mountain Time, travelling nearly 28,000 mph, speeding east over the western United States.

A short time later, radar and infrared cameras, operated by personnel in the UTTR Mission Control Center at Hill Air Force Base, will detect and track the capsule as it travels toward the range.

“The tracking data we have, combined with our radars and high-speed cameras, which can detect a heat signature, will help us locate the capsule and relay that information to the recovery team on the ground,” said Lindsay Carl, the Air Force’s range control officer for the mission.

If all goes as planned, the capsule will deploy two parachutes, slowing its descent, and land on the playa of Utah's west desert. Helicopters working for the UTTR, as well as a ground convoy, will stage near the planned landing zone.

“In the Mission Control Center, we will be in contact with the recovery team the entire time, relaying the location, so they can get to the capsule and secure it as quickly and safely as possible,” Carl said.

After leaving the staging area, the helicopters will land a safe distance from the capsule. On board the lead helicopter will be Stuart Wylie, a UTTR member and explosive ordnance disposal expert, who will serve as the on-scene commander for the mission. Wylie will be the first person to approach the capsule.

“For decades, this has been a very active military test and training range, there could be unexploded munitions or fragments in the landing area,” Carl said. “He’s very knowledgeable on the terrain and the potential dangers out there. He’ll keep the recovery team safe.”

After the science team examines the capsule and the ground around it, taking readings, and collecting data. They will wrap it and transfer it into a long line sling for helicopter transport back the UTTR’s Detachment 1 on the Army’s Dugway Proving Ground.

The capsule will be lowered down in front of an Air Force hangar bay, guided in by a team from the UTTR. Lockheed Martin engineers will then uncover it, examine it, and transfer it to a clean room that has been set up for months inside the hangar. That is where the capsule will stay until it is transported the following day to NASA’s Johnson Space Center in Houston, Texas.

The sample is set to be unveiled and examined on Oct. 10-11. Scientists hope to have their first findings published by 2024.

“We couldn’t do this without the partnership of the Utah Test and Training Range and the folks here at Dugway,” said Rich Burns, project manager for OSIRIS-REx at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Md. “Not just because this is an amazing place to bring the capsule back, but also because of their level of expertise, competence, and their spirit of cooperation. We couldn’t be happier.”