Monday, July 22, 2024

NASA’s first asteroid sample landed safely on Earth

After years of anticipation and hard work by NASA’s OSIRIS-REx (Origins, Spectral Interpretation, Resource Identification, and Security-Regolith Explorer) team, a capsule containing samples collected from asteroid Bennu has landed safely on Earth in a historic first for the United States.

On Sunday, the capsule containing around 250 grams (8.8 ounces) of the space rock landed in a targeted area of the Department of Defense’s Utah Test and Training Range near Salt Lake City. The capsule has been making its way home since 2020 when NASA’s OSIRIS-REx spacecraft extracted samples from the asteroid.

Within an hour and a half, the capsule was picked up by helicopter and transported to a temporary clean room set up in a hangar on the training range. There, it is now connected to a nitrogen purge, which involves introducing a continuous flow of the inert gas into the sample container inside the capsule to keep out earthly contaminants, leaving the sample pure for scientific analyses.

The returned asteroid Bennu samples to Earth will help scientists worldwide to make groundbreaking discoveries to better understand planet formation and the origin of organics and water that led to life on Earth. Moreover, the study of these samples can also help us learn more about potentially hazardous asteroids.

The $1 billion OSIRIS-REx mission launched in 2016 from Cape Canaveral Space Force Station in Florida atop an Atlas V launch vehicle. The OSIRIS-REx spacecraft arrived at Bennu in 2018 and collected samples of the asteroid in 2020. In May 2021, the sample return capsule was sent toward Earth while the main spacecraft went into orbit around the Sun.

After traveling billions of miles to Bennu and back, the OSIRIS-REx spacecraft released its sample capsule toward Earth’s atmosphere. Traveling at 27,650 mph (44,500 kph), the capsule pierced the atmosphere off the coast of California at an altitude of about 83 miles (133 kilometers). Within 10 minutes, it landed on the military range. Along the way, two parachutes successfully deployed to stabilize and slow the capsule down to a gentle 11 mph (18 kph) at touchdown.

“Congratulations to the OSIRIS-REx team on a picture-perfect mission – the first American asteroid sample return in history – which will deepen our understanding of the origin of our solar system and its formation. Not to mention, Bennu is a potentially hazardous asteroid, and what we learn from the sample will help us better understand the types of asteroids that could come our way,” said NASA Administrator Bill Nelson in an official statement. “With OSIRIS-REx, Psyche launch in a couple of weeks, DART’s one-year anniversary, and Lucy’s first asteroid approach in November, Asteroid Autumn is in full swing. These missions prove once again that NASA does big things. Things that inspire us and unite us. Things that show nothing is beyond our reach when we work together.”