OSIRIS-REx mission returns asteroid sample to Earth in NASA first

NASA has succeeded in returning its first sample of an asteroid to Earth, as the OSIRIS-REx mission released its capsule containing a sample taken from the asteroid Bennu early this morning. The sample landed in the Utah desert this afternoon, Sunday September 24. It was then collected and taken to a temporary clean room. Next, it will be sent on to the Johnson Space Center in Houston to be opened and studied.

OSIRIS-REx has “brought something extraordinary: the largest asteroid sample ever received on Earth,” NASA Administrator Bill Nelson said on NASA TV. “It’s going to help scientists investigate planet formation, it’s going to improve our understanding of asteroids that could possibly impact the Earth, and it’ll deepen our understanding of the origin of our solar system and its formation. This mission proves that NASA does big things — things that inspire us, things that unite us. Things that show that nothing is beyond our reach.”

An artist's impression of NASA’s OSIRIS-REx mission readying itself to touch the surface of asteroid Bennu.
An artist’s impression of NASA’s OSIRIS-REx mission readying itself to touch the surface of asteroid Bennu. NASA/Goddard/University of Arizona

The OSIRIS-REx spacecraft launched in 2016 and arrived at asteroid Bennu in 2018, where it went into orbit to study the asteroid up close. It made discoveries, including that the asteroid was only loosely held together and that it was spewing out plumes of particles and covered in boulders. It also made headlines as some of the discoveries were published by authors including Brian May, the guitarist of Queen, who has a Ph.D. in astronomy and worked on the Bennu data.

In 2020, the OSIRIS-REx spacecraft made its most dramatic and difficult maneuver, touching down on the asteroid’s surface and scooping up a sample, a feat achieved while the spacecraft was more than 200 million miles from Earth. The sample is estimated to be around 250 grams in weight, considerably more than previous asteroid sample missions, although the exact amount acquired won’t be known for sure until the capsule is opened.

The spacecraft departed Bennu in 2021 to head back to Earth, and it deployed the capsule as it passed by the planet this morning. The spacecraft will now be renamed OSIRIS-Apex and continue on an extended mission to explore the near-Earth asteroid Apophis, which it will rendezvous with in 2029.

The sample arrived in the Utah desert this afternoon, with its descent slowed by parachutes, and was collected by a sample recovery team. Following the success of two previous Japanese space agency (JAXA) missions, Hayabusa and Hayabusa 2, which collected material from different asteroids, the Bennu sample will be shared across agencies including NASA, JAXA, and the Canadian Space Agency. The hope is that studying the material from Bennu can help us understand some of the earliest stages of the solar system, including its formation and evolution.

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