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The OSIRIS-REx spacecraft reached the asteroid Bennu in 2018. NASA spent several years orbiting and studying the asteroid before dipping down to collect a sample of the rock in October last year. The space agency has now said the asteroid is on its way back to Earth as it prepares to make history.

OSIRIS-REx first fired up its main engines to full throttle on May 10 for seven minutes as it pushes away from the asteroid.

According to NASA, that seven-minute acceleration was enough to move away from Bennu at 600 miles per hour.

Nonetheless, it will still take the spacecraft two years to return to Earth, where it will drop off a piece of Bennu on September 24, 2023.

Thomas Zurbuchen, associate administrator for science at NASA Headquarters, said: “OSIRIS-REx’s many accomplishments demonstrated the daring and innovative way in which exploration unfolds in real-time.

“The team rose to the challenge, and now we have a primordial piece of our solar system headed back to Earth where many generations of researchers can unlock its secrets.”

The May 10 departure from Bennu was right on time, according to NASA.

The next step of the mission will be constant positional corrections for OSIRIS-REx to ensure it finds Earth safely.

This will include making sure the spacecraft approaches Earth at the correct angle.

NASA said that if it comes in too high, it could cause the capsule to burn up in the atmosphere.

However, if the angle is too low, the spacecraft could bounce off the atmosphere like a pebble skimming across the water.

Mike Moreau, OSIRIS-REx deputy project manager at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Maryland, said: “Our whole mindset has been, ‘Where are we in space relative to Bennu?’

“Now our mindset has shifted to ‘Where is the spacecraft in relation to Earth?’

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“There’s a lot of emotion within the team about the departure.

“I think everyone has a great sense of accomplishment because we faced all these daunting tasks and were able to accomplish all the objectives thrown at us.

“But there’s also some nostalgia and disappointment that this part of the mission is coming to an end.”

Peter Antreasian, OSIRIS-REx navigation lead at KinetX Aerospace, added: “We need to do regular corrections to bring the trajectory increasingly closer to Earth’s atmosphere for the sample release, and to account for small errors that might have accumulated since the last burn.”

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