There’s a special delivery arriving this weekend: A sample of an asteroid collected 220 million miles from Earth when NASA snagged it in 2020.
A spacecraft called Osiris-Rex—that is, “Origins, Spectral Interpretation, Resource Identification, and Security–Regolith Explorer,” thanks—is expected to deliver a small capsule that will land in the Utah desert on Sept. 24. The lander will contain perhaps half a pound (250 grams) of rocks and dust, compared to teaspoon-sized samples recovered by previous Japanese missions, which scientists will use to learn more about the history of the solar system.
It’s one of the rare times that a sample from deep space has been brought back to Earth. Objects traveling from far beyond Earth arrive at extraordinary speeds and require expensive shielding to ensure they don’t burn up in the atmosphere, and then complicated parachute or rocket systems to bring them safely down to the ground.
The only things worth spending all that money to bring back from Earth are unprecedented scientific samples like those arriving from Bennu, and humans—all nine reentries licensed by the Federal Aviation Administration in 2023 were astronauts returning on public and private SpaceX Dragon missions. But if the most ambitious vision of the space economy is realized—one with drugs and electronics manufactured in orbit, or metals mined from asteroids—we’ll need to bring back a lot more stuff.
Indeed, last week we found out that Varda Space Industries, a company trying to manufacture unique products in space, was denied permission to bring its first samples back from orbit earlier this month at the same US Air Force range where Osiris-Rex’s capsule will land. The company’s first spacecraft, launched in June, contained a fabricator to make samples of the HIV drug ritonavir. For now, Varda will have to wait as it reapplies for a reentry license to see how they came out.
FAA officials stress that this is the first time a private company will be approved to return a sample from orbit, and safety is paramount. But Varda hopes to be landing payloads monthly in 2026, and it’s not the only company with such aspirations: Redwire and Space Tango are looking at those business plans, while major investments in commercial space stations are driven in part by the expectation of revenues from different kind of manufacturing. Companies like Inversion and Canopy Space are developing the tools required to bring payloads back cheaply, but they have a long road ahead of them. AstroForge, a company that plans to mine platinum-group metals from asteroids, hopes to return its first payload back to earth before 2030. Regulators will have their hands full okaying these orbital deliveries, even as they stretch to keep up with the increasing cadence of launches.
And as Osiris-Rex suggests, it’s not just the private sector that wants to use robots to bring back more stuff from the rest of the universe. The US, China, India, Japan and the EU all have missions planned in the years ahead to the Moon, Mars, Mars’ moon Phobos, and another asteroid. It’s a veritable golden age of harvesting the solar system—and we don’t even have fully reusable rockets yet.
If everything goes to plan on Sept. 24, we’ll see something like this scene captured during a NASA dress rehearsal for the sample recovery that took place in July.
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SpaceX sues the government back. In a typically aggressive legal move, Elon Musk’s rocket-maker sued two administrative law officials and Attorney General Merrick Garland. The company is arguing that the way it was charged with employment discrimination earlier this year is unconstitutional.
Maxar splits in two. The earth imaging company has restructured into two organizations, one focused on building satellites and the other on collecting and selling the data they collect. The changes come after the company was taken private earlier this year by private equity investors Advent.
Rocket Lab faces first anomaly since 2021. The company’s Electron rocket suffered a failure after the rocket’s second stage separated, leaving the vehicle and its payload, a Capella space radar satellite, to fall into the ocean. The company is still figuring out what’s what, but in the meantime, it’s stock is suffering the consequences—and Cathy Woods’ ARKX ETF bought the dip.
Firefly sets “responsive launch” record. The rocket maker launched a satellite for Darpa, the US military’s technology development organization, with just 27 hours of notice, besting the previous record of 21 days. The Pentagon has long wanted the ability to fly spacecraft on demand, but thus far companies have been unable to deliver.
Is a Tesla factory Turkey’s price for Starlink access? Elon Musk and a group of SpaceX executives met with Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan about market access for Starlink. Erdoğan asked for a Tesla factory. SEE ALSO: Bloomberg’s Matt Levine on Musk’s management of his public and private companies.
🚀ROCKET TALK🚀 SpaceX’s Starship safety review is likely to wrap in October, per FAA space chief Kevin Coleman, but an environmental review could take longer. The company’s Falcon 9 booster flew for the 17th time, but it’s getting harder to watch.
Last week: A lawsuit against Amazon reveals the challenge of building a new satellite network.
Last year: The extraterrestrial equities that survived the SPAC collapse.
This was issue 195 of our newsletter. Hope your week is out of this world! Please send your favorite ways to come back from deep space, tips, and informed opinions to [email protected].