After seven years in space, a NASA space capsule carrying the largest sample ever collected from the surface of an asteroid successfully landed this Sunday.
The Origins, Spectral Interpretation, Resource Identification, Security and Regolith Explorer (OSIRIS-REx) mission capsule passed through Earth’s atmosphere and landed in the Utah Desert.
The sample taken in 2020 from asteroid Bennu contains about 250 grams of material, according to estimates by the US space agency, “more than two previous asteroid samples collected by Japanese missions.”
Completing the 3.86 billion mile (6.21 billion kilometer) journey, it marked the first sampled mission to return to the United States, according to the US space agency in a post on X, formerly Twitter.
“This material will help better understand the types of asteroids that can threaten Earth and shed light on the early history of the solar system,” said the head of the space agency, Bill Nelson.
Approximately four hours before its scheduled landing time, the Osiris-Rex probe released the capsule containing the sample, more than 100,000 kilometers from Earth.
In the next 13 minutes, this capsule passed through the atmosphere, entering at more than 44,000 km/h and reaching a temperature of 2,700°C. The probe continues its mission to another asteroid.
When the capsule reached the ground, a team with gloves and masks checked its condition, before placing it in a net and lifting it towards a helicopter.
The capsule should be exposed to the desert sand for as short a time as possible to avoid any contamination of the sample that could distort subsequent analyses.
The sample will then be sent to the Johnson Space Center in Houston, Texas. There the box will be opened, in another airtight room. The process takes days.
NASA plans a press conference on October 11 to reveal the initial results.
Most of the sample will be preserved for the study of future generations. About 25 percent will be used immediately for experiments and a small portion will be shared with partners in Japan and Canada.
“Asteroids are very important because they are debris from when the planets formed 4.5 billion years ago. They are like time capsules, equivalent to dinosaur fossils that allow us to know what happening millions of years ago. In this case, with our mission, we are traveling billions of years back in time,” explained Paganini, a planetary scientist at NASA.