The sample return capsule for NASA’s OSIRIS-REx mission touched down in the Utah desert on Sept. 24. with a sample from asteroid Bennu. Credit: NASA/Keegan Barber
After seven years and billions of miles of space travel, NASA’s OSIRIS-REx (Origins, Spectral Interpretation, Resource Identification and Security – Regolith Explorer) mission has successfully returned the U.S.’s first asteroid sample to Earth. On Sept. 24, the spacecraft’s Sample Return Capsule landed in the Utah desert near Salt Lake City with 250 grams of rock and dust from Bennu—a relatively small, 4.5-billion-year-old asteroid that passes near Earth about once every six years.
Because of its age, Bennu may contain organic materials offering clues to how life on Earth began. The sample may also help scientists better understand planetary formation in our solar system and the threat posed by potentially hazardous asteroids.
“Successfully delivering samples from Bennu to Earth is a triumph of collaborative ingenuity and a testament to what we can accomplish when we unite with a common purpose,” said Dante Lauretta, principal investigator for OSIRIS-REx at the University of Arizona, Tucson. “But let’s not forget—while this may feel like the end of an incredible chapter, it’s truly just the beginning of another. We now have the unprecedented opportunity to analyze these samples and delve deeper into the secrets of our solar system.”
OSIRIS-REx made landfall on Bennu on Oct. 20, 2020 where it navigated a complex maneuver of identifying a sample site, collecting rock and dust, and placing the material in a return capsule. About six months later, the capsule departed Bennu with its precious cargo for a long journey back to Earth. Since arriving, NASA has extracted, weighed, and inventoried the asteroid sample, which will be distributed for scientific study worldwide.
Originally launched in Sept. 2016, OSIRIS-REx was made possible by a team of hundreds of people who remotely navigated the spacecraft across the solar system. But OSIRIS’s mission isn’t over yet—the spacecraft now has a new objective to rendezvous in 2029 with the sizable near-Earth asteroid Apophis which scientists once feared was on a direct collision course with Earth.