(Bloomberg) -- A NASA capsule containing chunks of an asteroid that may hold clues to the solar system landed in the Utah desert on Sunday.
The capsule touched down successfully at 8:52 a.m. local time, NASA said on a live steam.
“This marks the US’s first sample return mission of its kind and will open a time capsule to the beginnings of our solar system,” NASA said in a post on X, the website formerly known as Twitter.
The NASA mission, called OSIRIS-REx, has been more than a decade in the making. The spacecraft launched in 2016 scooped up a large sample of rocks and dust from a near-Earth asteroid named Bennu in 2020. This weekend, it passed Earth and sent the capsule to its landing spot in remote Utah.
The sample will help scientists get a snapshot of what materials were present when the solar system first formed. Researchers plan to study the recovered rocks and use the mission to inform future exploration.
OSIRIS-REx may also help inform future missions to asteroids — perhaps even ones to mine these rocks for resources.
The sample capsule touched down slightly east of its target spot due to its path taken through the atmosphere. Its main parachute also deployed slightly earlier than expected, but still “touched down like a feather,” Tim Priser, chief engineer of deep space exploration at Lockheed Martin Corp., said at a press conference following the landing.
Scientists weren’t sure exactly how much sample is in the container, but suspect it’s the most ever collected from an asteroid, weighing roughly 250 grams (0.5 pound). That will give them more rocks to analyze than ever before.
OSIRIS-REx grabbed more rocks and materials than expected — so much, that it jammed the spacecraft’s sample collector open and some of it went spewing out into space. NASA opted not to measure the sample and instead quickly stowed the rocks to keep them safe.
The spacecraft left Bennu with the sample in 2021, and has been en route to Earth ever since.
After the capsule touched down, it was transported to a temporary clean room where it underwent a nitrogen purge to clear it of containments. On Monday, the sample will be taken to NASA’s Johnson Space Center, where it should be opened as early as Tuesday.
“We think we’ve got a lot of sample in that science canister, and we can’t wait to crack into it,” Dante Lauretta, the principal investigator on NASA’s OSIRIS-REx mission at the University of Arizona, said at a post-landing press conference.
In the meantime, the OSIRIS-REx spacecraft will remain in space and visit a new target, the asteroid Apophis, which is expected to come within 20,000 miles of Earth in 2029. To reflect its new mission, NASA has renamed the vehicle OSIRIS-APEX.
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