A NASA spacecraft kitted out with sensors made in Southampton is on its way back to Earth from exploring an asteroid.

OSIRIS-Rex is carrying a cargo of samples and data collected by sensors made at Leonardo in Millbrook.

Another of Leonardo’s sensors, made in Italy, will guide the vessel on its return journey.

OSIRIS-REx is the first NASA mission to visit a near-Earth asteroid, to survey the surface and collect a sample to deliver to Earth. It is due to touch down in 2023.

Scientists will be able to analyse samples to determine their composition, history, and the presence of minerals or organic materials to help understand the origins of life on Earth.

Arizona State University selected Leonardo’s sensors for its OSIRIS-REx Thermal Emission Spectrometer (OTES) instrument. Leonardo’s sensors allowed the OTES instrument to detect minerals present on the surface of the Bennu asteroid, while also gathering thermal data.

Leonardo’s Southampton worked with ASU’s science team over a period of two years to design and develop precision detectors for use in the spectrometer.

Greg Mehall, ASU team leader for sensors, said: “We managed to extract a large volume of useful data from the OTES instrument due to the fine-tuned sensitivity of Leonardo’s sensors. They have to be able to withstand the tough conditions of space whilst also giving us the same quality of readings that we would expect in lab conditions. We are very excited by the initial findings so far which will form part of a richer picture once the satellite returns to earth.”

Leonardo’s principal systems engineer, Raman Mistry, said: “It is very exciting to be a part of what is very much a new age of space exploration. We are challenging ourselves to provide the best sensors possible to help scientists understand how earth fits into the wider fabric of the universe.

“Our team gets a real buzz from working on such an important mission and we look forward to continuing our highly enjoyable, challenging and enriching collaboration with ASU for future missions far into the future.”

OSIRIS-REx, which launched in September 2016 from Cape Canaveral in Florida, is part of NASA’s new frontiers programme.