The American space agency NASA successfully delivered dusty samples from asteroid Bennu , famously known as the “most dangerous known rock in the Solar System,” to Earth. The capsule, carrying these samples, landed precisely in the West Desert of Utah, which the Department of Defense owns. This remarkable achievement by NASA’s Osiris-Rex spacecraft not only provides an opportunity to study asteroid Bennu but also holds significant implications for understanding the formation of the Solar System 4.6 billion years ago and potentially the origins of life on Earth.
The landing event itself was a cause for celebration, as long-range cameras captured the capsule’s descent ahead of schedule. This car-tyre-sized container re-entered Earth’s atmosphere at a staggering speed of over 12 kilometers per second (27,000 miles per hour). However, it safely descended with the assistance of a heatshield and parachutes, landing gently on restricted ground.
Tim Priser, the chief engineer at Lockheed Martin, expressed admiration for the capsule’s performance, stating, “This little capsule understood the assignment.” Recovery workers, returning in helicopters, described the operation as “awesome.” Osiris-Rex principal investigator Dante Lauretta emotionally shared his experience, saying, “I cried like a baby in that helicopter when I heard that the parachute had opened, and we were coming in for a soft landing. It was just an overwhelming moment for me. It’s an astounding accomplishment.”
Now, scientists are eagerly anticipating the chance to study the precious cargo, estimated to weigh around 250 grams (9 ounces). While this may seem small, it is more than sufficient for the precise tests NASA intends to conduct.
Eileen Stansbery, the chief scientist at NASA‘s Johnson Space Center in Texas, explained, “We can analyze very small particles at a very high resolution. We know how to dissect a 10-micron-sized particle into several slices and then map each grain at nano scales. So, 250 grams is substantial.”
Maintaining cleanliness and preventing contamination during the retrieval process was paramount. The recovery teams rushed to transport the capsule to a temporary clean room at the nearby Dugway army base as quickly as possible. This precaution is crucial because Earth‘s present-day chemistry must not compromise the sample if it contains carbon compounds relevant to the origins of life.
Mike Morrow, the Osiris-Rex deputy project manager, emphasized, “The cleanliness and prevention of spacecraft contamination have been stringent requirements for the mission. The best way to protect the sample is to swiftly transport it from the field to the clean lab we’ve established in a hangar and subject it to a pure nitrogen gas purge. Then, it’s secure.”
This process was completed just before 13:00 local time, a mere four hours after the capsule’s touchdown. The lab team meticulously disassembled the capsule, removing its heatshield and back cover while ensuring the sample remained securely contained within an inner canister.