UNITED STATES NEWS

NASA’s first asteroid samples land on Earth after release from spacecraft

Sep 24, 2023, 4:21 AM | Updated: 9:44 pm

NASA’s first asteroid samples fetched from deep space parachuted into the Utah desert Sunday to cap a seven-year journey.

In a flyby of Earth, the Osiris-Rex spacecraft released the sample capsule from 63,000 miles (100,000 kilometers) 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!” Mission Recovery Operations announced, immediately repeating the news since the landing occurred three minutes early. Officials later said the orange striped parachute opened four times higher than anticipated — around 20,000 feet (6,100 meters) — basing it on the deceleration rate.

To everyone’s relief, the capsule was intact and not breached, keeping its 4.5 billion-year-old samples free of contamination. Within two hours of touchdown, the capsule was inside a temporary clean room at the Defense Department’s Utah Test and Training Range, hoisted there by helicopter.

The sealed sample canister will be flown on Monday to NASA’s Johnson Space Center in Houston, where it will be opened in a new, specially designed lab. The building already houses the hundreds of pounds (kilograms) of moon rocks gathered by the Apollo astronauts.

“We can’t wait to crack into it. For me, the real science is just beginning,” said the mission’s lead scientist, Dante Lauretta of the University of Arizona. He’ll accompany the samples all the way to Texas.

Lori Glaze, NASA’s planetary science division director, added: “Those are going to be a treasure for scientific analysis for years and years and years to come.”

Scientists estimate the capsule holds at least a cup of rubble from the carbon-rich asteroid known as Bennu, but won’t know for sure until the container is opened in a day or two. Some spilled and floated away when the spacecraft scooped up too much material, which jammed the container’s lid during collection three years ago.

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

The pebbles and dust delivered Sunday represent the biggest haul from beyond the moon. Preserved building blocks from the dawn of our solar system, the samples will help scientists better understand how Earth and life formed, providing “an extraordinary glimpse” of 4.5 billion years ago, said NASA Administrator Bill Nelson.

Osiris-Rex, the mothership, rocketed away on the $1 billion 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 (6.2 billion kilometers).

At a news conference several hours later, Lauretta said he broke into tears of joy upon hearing that the capsule’s main parachute had opened.

“I knew we had made it home,” he said, so overwhelmed with emotion when he arrived at the scene that he wanted to hug the capsule, sooty but undamaged and not even bent.

Flight controllers for spacecraft builder Lockheed Martin stood and applauded the touchdown from their base in Colorado. 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 via helicopters.

“Boy, did we stick that landing,” Lauretta said. “It didn’t move, it didn’t roll, it didn’t bounce. It just made a tiny little divot in the Utah soil.”

British astronomer Daniel Brown, who was not involved in the mission, said he expects “great things” from NASA’s largest sample return since the Apollo moon landings more than a half-century ago. With these asteroid samples, “we are edging closer to understanding its early chemical composition, the formation of water and the molecules life is based on,” he added from Nottingham Trent University.

One Osiris-Rex team member was stuck in England, 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.”

Engineers estimate the canister holds 250 grams (8.82 ounces) of material from Bennu, plus or minus 100 grams (3.53 ounces). Even at the low end, it will easily surpass the minimum requirement of the mission, 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 (81 million kilometers) from Earth, Bennu is about one-third of a mile (one-half of a kilometer) across, roughly the size of the Empire State Building but shaped like a spinning top. It’s 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 (0.5 meters) into the asteroid, sucking up more material than anticipated.

These close-up observations may come in handy late 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 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 criticized the cost and complexity. The Martian rover Perseverance has spent the past two years collecting core samples for eventual transport to Earth.

___

The Associated Press Health and Science Department receives support from the Howard Hughes Medical Institute’s Science and Educational Media Group. The AP is solely responsible for all content.

United States News

Associated Press

What would happen without a Leap Day? More than you might think

NEW YORK (AP) — Leap year. It’s a delight for the calendar and math nerds among us. So how did it all begin and why? Have a look at some of the numbers, history and lore behind the (not quite) every-four-year phenomenon that adds a 29th day to February. BY THE NUMBERS The math is […]

27 minutes ago

FILE - Insurrections loyal to President Donald Trump at the U.S. Capitol in Washington on Jan. 6, 2...

Associated Press

Supreme Court, moving quickly, will decide if Trump can be prosecuted in election interference case

WASHINGTON (AP) — The Supreme Court on Wednesday agreed to decide whether former President Donald Trump can be prosecuted on charges he interfered with the 2020 election and set a course for a quick resolution. The justices’ order maintains a hold on preparations for a trial focused on Trump’s efforts to overturn his election loss. […]

46 minutes ago

FILE - Comedian Richard Lewis attends an NBA basketball game in Los Angeles on Dec. 25, 2012. Lewis...

Associated Press

Humorously morose comedian Richard Lewis, who recently starred on ‘Curb Your Enthusiasm,’ dies at 76

Richard Lewis, an acclaimed comedian known for exploring his neuroses in frantic, stream-of-consciousness diatribes while dressed in all-black, leading to his nickname “The Prince of Pain,” has died.

51 minutes ago

Associated Press

Reputed mobster gets four years in prison for extorting NYC labor union

NEW YORK (AP) — A Mafia member was sentenced Wednesday to more than four years in federal prison for his role in a long-running scheme in which he and others extorted funds from a New York City labor union, federal prosecutors said. Vincent Ricciardo, a captain in Colombo crime family, was also ordered to pay […]

2 hours ago

Associated Press

New York lawmakers approve new congressional map that gives Democrats a slight edge

ALBANY, N.Y. (AP) — The New York state Legislature on Wednesday approved a Democrat-drawn congressional map that gives the party a modest boost in a few battleground districts, helping their candidates in a heavily contested election year when House races in the state could determine control of Congress. Lawmakers in the Democrat-dominated statehouse approved the […]

2 hours ago

Associated Press

Conservationist Aldo Leopold’s last remaining child dies at 97

MADISON, Wis. (AP) — The last remaining child of famed conservationist and author Aldo Leopold has died at age 97. Estella Leopold, a researcher and scientist who dedicated her life to the land ethic philosophy of her famous father, died on Sunday in Seattle after several months in hospice, the Aldo Leopold Foundation announced. “She […]

3 hours ago

Sponsored Articles

...

Collins Comfort Masters

Here’s 1 way to ensure your family is drinking safe water

Water is maybe one of the most important resources in our lives, and especially if you have kids, you want them to have access to safe water.

...

Day & Night Air Conditioning, Heating and Plumbing

Day & Night is looking for the oldest AC in the Valley

Does your air conditioner make weird noises or a burning smell when it starts? If so, you may be due for an AC unit replacement.

...

Canvas Annuity

Interest rates may have peaked. Should you buy a CD, high-yield savings account, or a fixed annuity?

Interest rates are the highest they’ve been in decades, and it looks like the Fed has paused hikes. This may be the best time to lock in rates for long-term, low-risk financial products like fixed annuities.

NASA’s first asteroid samples land on Earth after release from spacecraft