In a momentous achievement, NASA’s spacecraft has safely delivered a canister filled with approximately a cup’s worth of asteroid rocks to a Utah desert. These extraordinary black pebbles and dirt have traversed 200 million miles through space as remnants of the solar system’s early days of planet formation, part of an asteroid named Bennu.
Scientists are exulting over this successful mission, which was seven years in the making. The purpose behind retrieving these rocks is to study pristine asteroid material, uncontaminated by Earth, offering insights into the early chemistry that might have contributed to the emergence of life.
The recovered spacecraft was transported to an adjacent clean room where it was promptly covered in a layer of nitrogen gas to safeguard it from Earth’s environment while being transported to NASA’s Johnson Space Center in Houston. The researchers had been waiting impatiently for almost two decades to finally be able to open the sealed sample canister.
The head of NASA’s OSIRIS-REx mission and University of Arizona planetary scientist Dante Lauretta shared his delight at starting the analysis of the asteroid rocks. The 2016-launched spacecraft ultimately arrived at Bennu in 2018, following the asteroid for almost two years before making a brief contact to collect a sample in 2020.
The $1-billion mission culminated in a triumph as the capsule re-entered Earth’s atmosphere and successfully deployed parachutes to safely land in a Utah desert. The capsule, blackened from its fiery reentry, appeared intact, resembling a UFO-shaped charcoal briquette, a testament to the mission’s success.
The journey is far from over; it marks the beginning of a new phase of laboratory investigation as researchers plan to meticulously study the contents of the canister, including the smallest particles and eventually the larger asteroid rocks. The knowledge gained from this extraterrestrial treasure promises to deepen our understanding of the solar system’s early history and may hold key revelations about the origins of life.