The most significant sample ever collected from an asteroid in space, and the first for NASA, made a difficult but successful landing in the Utah desert Sunday after a fiery final descent through Earth’s atmosphere. The OSIRIS-REx sample return capsule, containing 4.5 billion-year-old asteroid debris, landed at 8:52 a.m. local time at the military’s Utah Test and Training Range, three minutes ahead of schedule.
Scientists had watched anxiously as the brown-and-white capsule jettisoned from the spacecraft early Sunday morning. It entered the atmosphere at hypersonic speed and sped down over a designated landing area, where radar stations could track it to within 30 feet. The craft’s drogue parachute deployed when forces eased to 1.4 times Earth’s gravity, and the main parachute followed about 10 minutes later, slowing down the capsule to 11 miles per hour before it touched down in the desert.
Engineers estimate the capsule’s canister holds up to 8.8 ounces of asteroid dust, a hefty haul. “This is going to be great science,” astronomer Daniel Brown of Nottingham Trent University said. “With these asteroid samples, we’ll be able to get closer to understanding the early chemical composition of the solar system and how life began.”
The asteroid is the size of a city and has a rocky exterior with a surface that scientists hope will yield clues about the origins of life on our planet. The samples will help scientists investigate what kind of molecules can form water and how solar winds can alter rocks to become a refuge for organic materials.
After a careful examination, it appears the capsule did not suffer any damage during the nail-biting final descent, and the drogue and main parachutes worked as planned. A helicopter hoisted the capsule into a temporary clean room on the military range for initial work to remove its heat shield and backshell. Scientists will also check to see that no contamination from Earth has gotten into the canister of samples, which is scheduled to be flown on Monday to a new laboratory at Johnson Space Center in Houston.
The canister will undergo an intense nitrogen purge, which involves pumping the asteroid dust with nitrogen gas to remove oxygen and other contaminants from the 4.5 billion-year-old material. Then, it will be sealed in a new, air-filtered canister and shipped to Houston for opening in a lab that already houses hundreds of pounds (kilograms) of moon rocks returned by Apollo astronauts. Scientists hope to have the first results from the study by October. Afterward, OSIRIS-REx will zoom away from our blue marble to capture a detailed look at another near-Earth asteroid, Apophis. It will then change course and fly by the Earth again to return another asteroid sample in 2024. Eventually, the probe will be the first to visit a dangerous, potentially threatening asteroid and make an emergency deflection if necessary to protect our planet.