The capsule carried around 250g of rocks and dust collected from the asteroid Bennu as part of Nasa’s Osiris-Rex mission.
Nasa has made history once again by obtaining soil samples from the “most dangerous known rock in the Solar System”.
The capsule carrying the samples landed at 8.52am MDT in the selected area of the Department of Defense’s Utah Test and Training Range near Salt Lake City.
The mission was designed by Nasa’s Osiris-Rex (Origins, Spectral Interpretation, Resource Identification and Security – Regolith Explorer) team, which aimed to obtain the third and largest sample ever collected from an asteroid.
“We heard, ‘main chute detected,’ and I literally broke into tears,” Dante Lauretta, a University of Arizona scientist who has been involved in the project since its origin, told a press conference.
Tim Prizer, a Lockheed Martin engineer on the project, said: “We touched down as soft as a dove.”
The sample was collected by the Osiris-Rex spacecraft three years ago after a two-year journey to Bennu, a small, carbon-rich asteroid discovered in 1999. It passes relatively close to Earth every six years and, at 500 metres tall, the asteroid is wider than the Empire State Building is tall.
The sample is expected to provide key clues about the origins of the Solar System, as well as improve understanding of the formation of asteroids.
After landing, the capsule was transported by helicopter to a temporary clean room where it is undergoing a “nitrogen purge”. This will ensure that the sample stays pure for scientific analyses.
“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. 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.
“With Osiris-Rex, the 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, [and] things that show nothing is beyond our reach when we work together.”
In 2021, scientists with the Osiris-Rex team said Bennu could possibly drift into Earth’s orbit and hit the planet by September 2182, though there was a one in 2,700 (0.037 per cent) chance of that event happening.
To date, the US and Japan are the only two countries that have brought back asteroid samples. The ones returned three years ago by the Japanese mission Hayabusa2 were found to contain two organic compounds in a surprising discovery.
Earlier this year, the Chinese government approved a plan to send a robotic spacecraft to collect samples from an asteroid, according to the China National Space Administration’s Lunar Exploration and Space Programme Centre.
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