This NASA capsule could hold clues about the origins of life itself

Key Points
  • A capsule from NASA’s OSIRIS-REx spacecraft has returned to Earth after an asteroid mission.
  • The capsule carries samples, such as rocks, from asteroid Bennu.
  • The samples are said to be thousands of years old and could help uncover some of the mysteries of the universe.
A gumdrop-shaped capsule, released from the robotic spacecraft OSIRIS-REx as the mothership passed within 108,000km of Earth hours earlier, touched down within a designated landing zone west of Salt Lake City on the US military’s vast Utah Test and Training Range.
The final descent and landing, shown on a NASA livestream, capped a six-year joint mission between the US space agency and the University of Arizona. It marked only the third asteroid sample, and by far the biggest, ever returned to Earth for analysis, following two similar missions by Japan’s space agency ending in 2010 and 2020.

After touchdown, the capsule laid nose-down on the sandy floor of the Utah desert, a red-and-white parachute that slowed its high-speed descent resting just feet away after detaching.

OSIRIS-REx collected its specimen 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, though the odds of an impact are considered remote.
Apparently made up of a loose collection of rocks, like a rubble pile, Bennu measures just 500 metres across, making it slightly wider than the Empire State Building is tall but tiny compared with the Chicxulub asteroid that struck Earth some 66 million years ago, wiping out the dinosaurs.

“It wasn’t mission impossible, it was the impossible became possible,” NASA Administrator Bill Nelson said in a video message shortly after the landing.

Three members of NASA prepare the sample return capsule for transport shortly after it touched down in the desert at the Department of Defense’s Utah Test and Training Range. Source: EPA / NASA/Keegan Barber HANDOUT

Like other asteroids, Bennu is a relic of the early solar system. Because its present-day chemistry and mineralogy are virtually unchanged since forming some 4.5 billion years ago, it holds valuable clues to the origins and development of rocky planets such as Earth.

It may even contain organic molecules similar to those necessary for the emergence of microbes.

Samples returned three years ago by the Japanese mission Hayabusa2 from Ryugu, another near-Earth asteroid, were found to contain two organic compounds, buttressing the hypothesis that celestial objects such as comets, asteroids and meteorites that bombarded early Earth seeded the young planet with the primordial ingredients for life.

OSIRIS-REx’s long journey

OSIRIS-REx launched in September 2016 and reached Bennu in 2018, then spent nearly two years orbiting the asteroid before venturing close enough to snatch a sample of the loose surface material with its robot arm on October 20, 2020.

The spacecraft departed Bennu in May 2021 for a 1.9 billion km cruise back to Earth, including two orbits around the sun.

Hitting the upper atmosphere at 35 times the speed of sound about 13 minutes prior to landing, the capsule glowed red-hot as it plunged earthward and temperatures on its heat shield reached 2800 C.
Parachutes deployed near the end of the descent, slowing the capsule to about 18 km/h before it landed without incident onto the desert floor of northwestern Utah.

The Bennu sample has been estimated at 250 grams, far surpassing the five grams carried back from Ryugu in 2020 or the tiny specimen delivered from asteroid Itokawa in 2010. But the amount of material delivered on Sunday will not be more precisely quantified for at least a week.

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