Space capsule with samples of an asteroid after landing in Utah, Sept. 24, 2023/Reuters
A NASA space capsule with the largest soil samples ever collected from an asteroid landed Sunday in the Utah desert and will now be studied by scientists.
The capsule had been released a few hours earlier from the OSIRIS-REx spacecraft, while the mothership was 107,826 km from Earth. It was landed by parachute in a landing zone west of Salt Lake City, within a large U.S. Army training and firing range.
Its landing, broadcast live by NASA, was the end of a six-year joint mission between NASA and the University of Arizona. This is only the third sample ever taken from an asteroid — and the largest — and returned to Earth for further analysis. Two similar missions by the Japan Space Agency were carried out in 2010 and 2020.
OSIRIS-REx collected the samples three years ago from Bennu, a small, carbon-rich asteroid discovered in 1999. The space rock is classified as a "near-Earth object" because it passes relatively close to our planet every six years, although its chances of hitting us are considered slim.
Like other asteroids, Bennu is a remnant of the early solar system. Because today's chemistry and minerals have changed little since they formed about 4.5 billion years ago, they offer important clues to the origins and evolution of rocky planets like Earth. It may even contain organic molecules similar to those necessary for bacteria to appear.
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