A NASA spacecraft carrying the biggest asteroid soil sample ever collected sped through Earth’s atmosphere on Sunday before releasing the celestial specimen onto the Utah desert for scientists to study.
The robotic spacecraft OSIRIS-REx dropped a gumdrop-shaped capsule hours earlier when the mothership flew within 67,000 miles (107,826 km) of Earth. The capsule landed on the huge Utah Test and Training Range of the US military in a designated landing zone west of Salt Lake City.
NASA’s broadcast of the final descent and landing marked the end of a six-year collaborative project with the University of Arizona. Only three asteroid samples have ever been brought back to Earth for study, and this one was by far the largest. Japan’s space agency made similar missions which ended in 2010 and 2020.
A red-and-white parachute that slowed the capsule’s rapid fall rested nearby after disconnecting as it landed nose-down on the sandy floor of the Utah desert.
The main chute unfolded as intended after some uncertainty over the successful deployment of the preparatory chute, resulting in a gentle and almost faultless landing for the capsule.
Dante Lauretta, a physicist from the University of Arizona who has worked on the project since its inception and witnessed the drop from a helicopter, said at a news conference, “We heard’main chute detected,’ and I literally broke into tears.”
As a Lockheed Martin engineer working on the project, Tim Prizer, put it, “we touched down as soft as a dove.”
Bennu, a tiny, carbon-rich asteroid discovered in 1999, is where OSIRIS-REx acquired its sample three years ago. Despite the low likelihood of a collision, the space rock is categorised as a “near-Earth object” since it travels quite close to our planet every six years.
Bennu, which appears to be composed of a loose jumble of boulders, is just 500 metres (547 yards) across, making it narrower than the Empire State Building and far smaller than the Chicxulub asteroid, which slammed Earth 66 million years ago and wiped out the dinosaurs.
Bennu is an artefact of the early solar system, like other asteroids. It contains important hints regarding the formation and evolution of rocky planets like Earth since its current chemistry and mineralogy have hardly altered since it formed around 4.5 billion years ago.
Even organic compounds required for the development of microorganisms are possible to find there.
Two organic compounds were discovered in samples from Ryugu, another near-Earth asteroid, that were brought back three years ago by the Japanese mission Hayabusa2. This finding supports the idea that celestial bodies like comets, asteroids, and meteorites that bombarded early Earth seeded the young planet with the primordial ingredients for life.
Launched in September 2016, OSIRIS-REx arrived at Bennu in 2018, spent almost two years circling the asteroid, and on October 20, 2020, it will approach close enough to collect a sample of the loose surface material with its robotic arm.
In May 2021, the spacecraft blasted out from Bennu on a 1.2 billion mile (1.9 billion km) journey that included two circles of the sun.