NASA confirms the return of Bennu asteroid samplesafter seven years in space. The small capsule, roughly the size of a microwave oven, touched down safely on Sunday morning, drawing cheers from an enthusiastic crowd. While it arrived slightly earlier than the planned schedule, the landing unfolded precisely as intended.
"We have touchdown!" declared Mission Recovery Operations, quickly reiterating the news, as the landing happened three minutes ahead of schedule. Officials later explained that the orange-striped parachute deployed at a significantly higher altitude than expected, approximately 20,000 feet (6,100 meters), based on the deceleration rate.
Much to the collective relief, the capsule remained undamaged and unbreached, ensuring the preservation of its 4.5 billion-year-old samples, uncontaminated. Within a mere two hours after landing, a helicopter hoisted the capsule into a temporary clean room located at the Defense Department's Utah Test and Training Range.
On Monday, the sealed sample canister is scheduled for transport to NASA's Johnson Space Center in Houston, where it will undergo opening and analysis within a newly constructed, specialized laboratory. This facility already holds the precious hundreds of pounds (kilograms) of moon rocks collected by the Apollo astronauts.
"We can’t wait to crack into it. For me, the real science is just beginning," expressed Dante Lauretta, the lead scientist of the mission, hailing from the University of Arizona. He will personally oversee the transportation of the samples to Texas for further study.
Lori Glaze, NASA’s planetary science division director, added: "Those are going to be a treasure for scientific analysis for years and years and years to come."
Two recovery team members carrying the OSIRIS-REx capsule
Scientists estimate that the capsule contains at least a cup's worth of material from the carbon-rich asteroid known as Bennu. However, the exact quantity won't be confirmed until the container is opened, which is expected to happen in a day or two. Some material had spilled and floated away during the collection process three years ago when the spacecraft gathered an excessive amount, causing the container's lid to become jammed.
Japan, the only other country to successfully retrieve samples from an asteroid, managed to collect about a teaspoon's worth of material during two asteroid missions.
The pebbles and dust delivered on Sunday constitute the largest haul from beyond the moon. These preserved remnants from the early days of our solar system will provide valuable insights into the formation of Earth and life itself.
The OSIRIS-REx mothership embarked on this $1 billion mission in 2016. It reached Bennu in 2018 and, using a unique long stick vacuum, collected material from the small, roundish space rock in 2020. Over the course of its journey, the spacecraft covered an impressive 4 billion miles (6.2 billion kilometers).
During a later news conference held several hours after the landing, Dante Lauretta, the mission's lead scientist, revealed that he was moved to tears of joy upon learning that the capsule's main parachute had successfully deployed.
"I knew we had made it home," he exclaimed, his emotions overwhelming him as he arrived at the landing site. His sentiment was so strong that he felt the urge to embrace the capsule, which, despite its sooty appearance, remained undamaged and unaltered.
In Colorado, the flight controllers from spacecraft builder Lockheed Martin rose from their seats and offered applause in celebration of the successful touchdown. NASA's camera feeds displayed the charred capsule resting upside down on the sandy terrain, with its parachute detached and scattered nearby, while the recovery team approached via helicopters.
Boy, did we stick that landing. It didn't move, it didn't roll, it didn't bounce. It just made a tiny little divot in the Utah soil.- Dante Lauretta
NASA's current mission to bring back asteroid samples isn't their first try. In 2004, they had a mission called Genesis, but it had a problem with its parachute and crashed in Utah. Some of its samples were damaged, but they saved some.
Two years later, NASA did better with the Stardust mission. It safely came back to Earth with samples from a comet and interstellar dust, making it a successful mission.