NASA Capsule Delivers First Asteroid Samples

Rubble was collected from Bennu in deep space
By Newser Editors and Wire Services
Posted Sep 24, 2023 10:36 AM CDT
NASA Capsule Delivers First Asteroid Samples
This image taken from video provided by NASA TV shows the capsule released by the Osiris-Rex spacecraft on the surface near its parachute after Sunday.   (NASA TV via AP)

NASA's first asteroid samples fetched from deep space parachuted into the Utah desert Sunday morning to cap a seven-year, $1 billion journey. In a flyby of Earth, the Osiris-Rex spacecraft released the sample capsule from 63,000 miles out. The small capsule landed four hours later on a remote expanse of military land, as the mothership set off after another asteroid, the AP reports. "We have touchdown!" Flight Control announced immediately repeating the news, since the landing occurred a few minutes early. Officials later said the orange-striped parachute opened four times higher than anticipated—around 20,000 feet—which led to the early touchdown.

Scientists estimate the capsule holds at least a cup of rubble from the carbon-rich asteroid known as Bennu but won't know for sure until the container is opened. Some spilled and floated away when the spacecraft scooped up too much, and rocks jammed the container's lid during collection three years ago. Japan, the only other country to bring back asteroid samples, gathered about a teaspoon in a pair of asteroid missions. The pebbles and dust delivered Sunday represent the biggest haul from beyond the moon. Preserved building blocks from the dawn of our solar system 4.5 billion years ago, the samples will help scientists better understand how Earth and life formed, per the AP.

Osiris-Rex, the mothership, rocketed away in 2016. It reached Bennu two years later and, using a long stick vacuum, grabbed rubble from the small roundish space rock in 2020. By the time it returned, the spacecraft had logged 4 billion miles. NASA's recovery effort in Utah included helicopters as well as a temporary clean room set up at the Defense Department's Utah Test and Training Range. The samples will be flown Monday morning to a new lab at NASA's Johnson Space Center in Houston. The building already houses the hundreds of pounds of moon rocks gathered by the Apollo astronauts more than a half-century ago. NASA plans a public show-and-tell in October. Osiris-Rex is already chasing after the asteroid Apophis and will reach it in 2029.

(Read more NASA stories.)

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