A Nasa capsule carrying chunks of an asteroid from deep space has touched Earth, parachuting into the Utah desert in the US on Sunday, ending its seven-year journey.
Nasa's Osiris-Rex spacecraft, launched in 2016, first released the sample capsule from 63,000 miles (100,000 kilometres) out and then the small capsule landed four hours later as the mothership set off after another asteroid, an Associated Press (AP) report said.
“This marks the US’s first sample return mission of its kind and will open a time capsule to the beginnings of our solar system,” the US space agency said in a post on X, formerly Twitter. The sample canister will taken to Nasa's Johnson Space Center in Houston on Monday, where it will be opened in a new, specially designed lab. The centre is already home to hundreds of kilograms of moon rocks gathered by the Apollo astronauts.
“We can’t wait to crack into it. For me, the real science is just beginning," the mission's lead scientist Dante Lauretta of the University of Arizona told AP. The sample return "is really historic," Nasa scientist Amy Simon told AFP, adding that this will be "the biggest sample we've brought back since the Apollo moon rocks" were returned to Earth.
According to scientists the capsule holds at least a cup of rubble from the carbon-rich asteroid known as Bennu. Some of the chunks were lost when the spacecraft filled up with too much material, which jammed the container’s lid during collection three years ago.
Currently, Japan’s Hayabusa2 spacecraft is the only other spacecraft to bring back samples. In 2010, the original Hayabusa mission became the first to return material from an asteroid to Earth, from a visit to the asteroid Itokawa, as reported by Science.org. In 2020, the return capsule of the Hayabusa2 mission brought back samples after a trip to the asteroid Ryugu.
Nasa’s sample delivered Sunday will be the biggest haul from beyond the moon, the AP report adds. The collected samples will help scientists better understand how Earth and life formed, providing “an extraordinary glimpse" of 4.5 billion years ago, Nasa administrator Bill Nelson said in the statement.
Osiris-Rex, the mothership, was launched as a $1-billion mission in 2016. It reached Bennu two years later and, using a long stick vacuum, grabbed rubble from the small roundish space rock in 2020, the AP report explains. By the time it returned, it had logged 6.2 billion kilometres. Engineers estimate the canister holds 250 grams of material from Bennu. Nasa plans to present it to the public in October.
This was Nasa’s third sample return from a deep-space robotic mission. The first spacecraft, Genesis, returned with bits of solar wind in 2004, but the parachute failed and the capsule slammed on the ground, compromising the samples. The second, the Stardust spacecraft, successfully delivered comet dust in 2006.
Osiris-Rex is already chasing after the asteroid Apophis and is expected to reach it in 2029.