Asteroid Sample Return

Recovery team members carry a capsule containing NASA’s first asteroid samples to a temporary clean room at Dugway Proving Ground in Utah on Sunday. The Osiris-Rex spacecraft released the capsule following a seven-year journey to the asteroid Bennu and back. Its heat shield was manufactured by Spirit AeroSystems in Biddeford. Rick Bowmer/ Pool/Associated Press

A small capsule containing about a cup full of asteroid dust dropped 63,000 miles, rocketing through space at 27,000 mph and heating up to 5,000 degrees, before landing safely in Utah Sunday.

About 2,500 miles east, employees at an aerospace composites manufacturer in Biddeford quietly celebrated their latest contribution to space exploration.

Fiber Materials Inc., which was purchased by Spirit AeroSystems in a deal that closed in January, manufactured the heat shield that allowed the capsule, dropped by the Osiris-Rex spacecraft, to withstand the tremendous heat and speed as it plummeted to Earth.

Reentry is the most dangerous part of a spacecraft’s mission, when the temperatures and forces acting on a capsule increase dramatically, pushing materials and technology to the breaking point.

That’s why heat shields are more than just important. They are, said Kate Whitney, senior manager of marketing and communications for Spirit AeroSystems, the most critical piece for achieving the spacecraft’s primary goal of bringing material back to Earth.

This particular spacecraft’s mission has been seven years in the making.


Though Osiris-Rex launched from Cape Canaveral seven years ago, work in Maine, where the mission’s thermal protection system was designed, began two years before that.

“These missions take so long to come to fruition that when they do, and when they’re successful, it’s a huge achievement,” Whitney said.  “A lot of our employees feel really proud to be doing work that is contributing to space exploration.”


Steven Violette, a senior application manager at Spirit, watched the landing from Dugway Proving Ground in Utah and breathed a sigh of relief when the capsule’s parachute opened.

He and Mark Lippold, another application engineer and member of the roughly seven-person team that built the heat shield, were invited to see their work in action – a first for Violette since the Stardust landing in 2006 was before his time with the company and the rest of their heat shields are currently on Mars.

During the descent into the atmosphere, the vessel begins heating, reaching “maximum heating” at 5,000 degrees Fahrenheit. Shortly after that, the parachute opens.


“Once the parachute opened, we knew the heat shield operated like it should,” Violette said. “It performed flawlessly.”

SpiritAeroSystems’ heat shield is made with a composite material called PICA, or phenolic-impregnated carbon ablators, which will char and erode slightly during descent as it protects the craft, Violette said.

Steve Violette, left, and Mark Lippold of Spirit AeroSystems in Biddeford, watched the landing from the Dugway Proving Ground in Utah and breathed a sigh of relief when the capsule’s parachute opened. Photo courtesy of Spirit AeroSystems

The heat shield for the Orisis Rex capsule was on the smaller side, about 35 inches in diameter, Violette said. Some of the company’s larger heat shields can be 14 to 15 feet in diameter.

After Sunday’s landing, Violette said the capsule’s heat shield had remained very close to its original shape.

“It was kind of difficult to tell it had eroded at all,” he said, adding that while they necessarily have complete confidence in their product, it’s still both exhilarating and a relief to see it operate as it should, especially after so many years.

Osiris-Rex collected the samples of rubble from the carbon-rich asteroid known as Bennu.


The 4.5 billion-year-old samples – preserved building blocks from the dawn of the solar system – will help scientists better understand how Earth and life formed.

It will take a few more weeks for scientists to get a precise measurement of the sample, and NASA plans a public show-and-tell next month.

Spirit AeroSystems works among three divisions: commercial, aftermarket, and defense and space. For Violette, who has worked at the Biddeford facility for 17 years, space projects will always be his favorite.

“It’s very rewarding,” he said. “Every product that I make benefits the advancement of humankind.”


Whitney said the successful mission has been energizing for the roughly 300 employees at the Biddeford division of Spirit AeroSystems, an international company with more than 20,000 employees.


But this is far from the company’s first foray into space exploration. Fiber Materials, its predecessor, began partnering with NASA nearly 30 years ago.

The company fabricated the thermal protection system for the transport/entry aeroshell for NASA’s Perseverance Mars Rover, which launched in 2020.

It also created propulsion components for the launch abort system aboard the Orion multipurpose crew vehicle, part of the Artemis mission to return humans to the moon.

Space Asteroid Grab

This illustration depicts the Osiris-Rex spacecraft at the asteroid Bennu. Conceptual Image Lab/Goddard Space Flight Center/NASA via Associated Press

FMI’s protective insulating panels also allowed the successful return of NASA’s Stardust in 2006 and were included on the Mars Science Laboratory, a robotic space probe mission that landed the rover Curiosity in 2012.

“I think that people in Maine don’t really understand that there’s a company right in Biddeford doing these exciting things,” Whitney said.

And it’s not the only local company making waves in the industry. In fact, Maine is poised to make a name for itself as a leader in aerospace.


The state officially launched this effort to boost its budding space economy last year with a law to develop the Maine Space Port Corp., a public-private partnership charged with creating the Maine Space Complex, a planned collection of launch sites, research facilities and a data analytics center across the state. A research hub and launch site are planned for Brunswick Landing.

Supporters say Maine is uniquely suited for launching satellites into polar orbit because of its geographic coordinates, rural landscape, low population density, and existing industry and infrastructure.

There’s already a burgeoning aerospace industry in the state, with dozens of businesses either directly or indirectly linked to the field.

Aside from Spirit AeroSystems, there’s also bluShift Aerospace, a Brunswick Landing-based company developing biofuel-powered rockets. VALT Enterprises, based in Old Orchard Beach with a second location in Presque Isle, is a defense and space launch company leveraging a technology known as hypersonic air-breathing propulsion to reduce the weight, size and cost for nanosatellites to get to space. Greisen Aerospace, also in Brunswick Landing, designs and manufactures satellite ground support equipment, including specialized lifting hardware used by the aerospace and defense industries.

Watch RevUp Maine: When launching a company means launching an industry

These companies, among others, all work directly within the industry, but there are dozens of machining, engineering, telecommunication and manufacturing businesses that have more peripheral but still important roles in the supply chain.

NASA Administrator Bill Nelson noted during a visit in June that the state’s bevy of entrepreneurs are ready to go and “bubbling up” with new ideas.

“Maine has a brilliant future in space,” he said.

This report contains material from The Associated Press.

This story was updated at 11 a.m. Tuesday to correct the age of the asteroid sample.

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