Spacecraft successfully returns to Earth after collecting asteroid samples

The Osiris-Rex spacecraft sits in the Utah desert after returning to Earth with the largest sample ever collected from an asteroid in space. (Photo: HANDOUT)
The Osiris-Rex spacecraft sits in the Utah desert after returning to Earth with the largest sample ever collected from an asteroid in space. (Photo: HANDOUT)

In a flyby of Earth, the Osiris-Rex spacecraft released the sample capsule from 63,000 miles out. The small capsule landed four hours later on a remote expanse of military land, as the mothership set off after another asteroid.

“We have touchdown!” Flight Control announced, immediately repeating the news since the landing occurred three minutes before anticipated. Officials later said the orange striped parachute opened four times higher than anticipated – around 20,000 feet – which led to the early touchdown.

Forty minutes later, the recovery team confirmed that the capsule was intact and had not been breached.

“It’s like ‘Wow!’” said Nasa astronaut Sunita Williams, who happened to be in Utah training for her own space capsule mission. “This is just amazing. It can go from the movies, but this is reality.”

Scientists estimate the capsule holds at least a cup of rubble from the carbon-rich asteroid known as Bennu, but will not know for sure until the container is opened.

Some spilled and floated away when the spacecraft scooped up too much and rocks jammed the container’s lid during collection three years ago.

Japan, the only other country to bring back asteroid samples, gathered about a teaspoon in a pair of asteroid missions.

The pebbles and dust delivered on Sunday represent the biggest haul from beyond the moon. Preserved building blocks from the dawn of our solar system 4.5 billion years ago, the samples will help scientists better understand how Earth and life formed.

Osiris-Rex, the mothership, rocketed away on the 1 billion US dollar 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. By the time it returned, the spacecraft had logged 4 billion miles.

Flight controllers for spacecraft builder Lockheed Martin stood and applauded at touchdown from their base in Colorado, ecstatic to have the precious samples on Earth. Nasa camera views showed the charred capsule upside down on the sand with its parachute disconnected and strewn nearby, as the recovery team moved in.

Nasa administrator Bill Nelson said the samples will provide “an extraordinary glimpse into the beginnings of our solar system”.

With these samples “we are edging closer to understanding its early chemical composition, the formation of water, and the molecules life is based on,” astronomer Daniel Brown of Nottingham Trent University said.

One Osiris-Rex team member was stuck in the UK, rehearsing for a concert tour. “My heart’s there with you as this precious sample is recovered,” Queen’s lead guitarist Brian May, who’s also an astrophysicist, said in a prerecorded message. “Happy Sample Return Day.”

Nasa’s recovery effort in Utah included helicopters as well as a temporary clean room set up at the Defence Department’s Utah Test and Training Range. The samples will be flown on Monday morning to a new lab at Nasa’s Johnson Space Centre in Houston. The building already houses moon rocks gathered by the Apollo astronauts more than a half-century ago.

The mission’s lead scientist, Dante Lauretta of the University of Arizona, will accompany the samples to Texas. The opening of the container in Houston in the next day or two will be “the real moment of truth”, given the uncertainty over the amount inside, he said before the landing.

Engineers estimate the canister holds 250 grams of material from Bennu, plus or minus 100 grams. Even at the low end, it will easily surpass the minimum requirement of the mission, Dr Lauretta said.

It will take a few weeks to get a precise measurement, said Nasa’s lead curator Nicole Lunning.

Nasa plans a public show-and-tell in October.

Currently orbiting the sun 50 million miles from Earth, Bennu is about one-third of a mile across, roughly the size of the Empire State Building but shaped like a spinning top. It is believed to be the broken fragment of a much larger asteroid.

During a two-year survey, Osiris-Rex found Bennu to be a chunky rubble pile full of boulders and craters. The surface was so loose that the spacecraft’s vacuum arm sank a foot or two into the asteroid, sucking up more material than anticipated and jamming the lid.

These close-up observations may come in handy late in the next century. Bennu is expected to come dangerously close to Earth in 2182 – possibly close enough to hit. The data gleaned by Osiris-Rex will help with any asteroid-deflection effort, according to Dr Lauretta.

Osiris-Rex is already chasing after the asteroid Apophis, and will reach it in 2029.

This was Nasa’s third sample return from a deep-space robotic mission. The Genesis spacecraft dropped off bits of solar wind in 2004, but the samples were compromised when the parachute failed and the capsule slammed into the ground. The Stardust spacecraft successfully delivered comet dust in 2006.

Nasa’s plans to return samples from Mars are on hold after an independent review board criticised the cost and complexity. The Martian rover Perseverance has spent the past two years collecting core samples for eventual transport to Earth.