NASA’s historic asteroid sample has successfully landed on Earth, giving scientists an unprecedented opportunity to study the origins of the solar system and gain insight into potential future collisions with our planet. The sample was collected by the OSIRIS-REx spacecraft, which flew by Earth on Sunday to deliver the pristine sample from the near-Earth asteroid Bennu.
The spacecraft, which stands for Origins, Spectral Interpretation, Resource Identification, Security, Regolith Explorer, was launched in 2016 and began orbiting Bennu in 2018. After collecting the sample in 2020, it began its long journey back to Earth in May 2021.
On Sunday morning, the spacecraft dropped the sample capsule, containing approximately 250 grams of rocks and asteroid soil, from a distance of 102,000 kilometers above the Earth’s surface. The capsule entered the planet’s atmosphere at a speed of about 44,498 kilometers per hour and deployed parachutes to slow its descent. It landed safely at the Department of Defense’s Utah Test and Training Range, where recovery and research teams assessed the capsule for any damage. Fortunately, there were no breaches, and the recovery teams are prepared to retrieve the capsule once it is safe to do so.
The sample will now undergo thorough analysis to ensure its pristine status and to extract valuable information about the solar system’s origins. Scientists will also study the sample from Bennu alongside a sample from the asteroid Ryugu, collected by the Japanese Hayabusa2 mission, to gain a comprehensive understanding of our solar system’s formation. Additionally, the sample can provide crucial insights into Bennu itself, as the asteroid has the potential to collide with Earth in the future. This knowledge is essential for predicting and potentially deflecting future asteroid threats.
Despite the possibility of a government shutdown, NASA assures that the preservation and handling of the asteroid sample will not be jeopardized. The sample has waited billions of years for humans to study, and any delay in the analysis will not compromise its protection.
The discovery of the asteroid sample opens up endless possibilities for scientific understanding and could pave the way for future generations with even better technology to unravel more of the solar system’s mysteries.