Samples from what scientists have dubbed the “most perilous rock in our solar neighborhood” have made their way back to Earth. In a meticulously orchestrated mission, NASA safely delivered these precious specimens to the West Desert of Utah, defying expectations and touching down at 08:52 local time (14:52 GMT), three minutes ahead of schedule.

These specimens were originally collected from the surface of asteroid Bennu in 2020 by NASA’s Osiris-Rex spacecraft. The mission’s primary objective is to gain a deeper understanding of this mountainous space object, given its remote possibility of colliding with Earth within the next 300 years. However, the significance of these samples extends far beyond this cosmic insurance policy.

The landing was nothing short of breathtaking, with the car-tyre-sized capsule hurtling through the Earth’s atmosphere at speeds exceeding 12 km/s (27,000 mph). Yet, a sophisticated combination of heatshields and parachutes ensured a gentle and precise touchdown on restricted terrain, leaving the aerospace community in awe.

Tim Priser, the chief engineer at Lockheed Martin, praised the capsule’s performance, stating, “This little capsule understood the assignment. It touched down like a feather.”

The recovery operation was equally impressive, as delighted workers returning in helicopters described it as “awesome.” Dante Lauretta, the principal investigator for Osiris-Rex, shared his overwhelming emotions, 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’s an astounding accomplishment.”

Now, scientists are eager to delve into the treasure trove of knowledge contained within the capsule, estimated to hold approximately 250 grams (9 oz) of material. While this might not seem substantial in weight, it’s ample for the meticulous tests and analyses that NASA intends to carry out.

Eileen Stansbery, the chief scientist at NASA’s Johnson Space Center in Texas, emphasized the precision of their analytical capabilities, explaining, “We can analyze at a very high resolution very small particles. We know how to slice and dice a 10-micron-sized particle into a dozen slices and then map grain by grain at nano scales. So, 250 grams is huge.”


Maintaining cleanliness throughout the operation was paramount. The recovery teams swiftly transported the capsule to a temporary clean room at the nearby Dugway army base to prevent contamination. Given the possibility that the sample contains carbon compounds involved in the origins of life, avoiding any interaction with Earth’s current chemistry was crucial.

Mike Morrow, the Osiris-Rex deputy project manager, highlighted their rigorous approach, saying, “The best way that we can protect the sample is just to get it from the field into the clean lab that we’ve set up here in a hangar as quickly as possible and get it under a pure nitrogen gas purge. And then it’s safe.” This process was completed just four hours after touchdown.

The next phase involves disassembling the capsule, removing its heatshield and back cover, while keeping the precious sample secure inside an inner canister. This canister is set to be flown to a dedicated facility at Johnson, where the in-depth analysis of these remarkable specimens will commence.

Ashley King, a UK scientist and part of a six-person “Quick Look” team, anticipates a fascinating array of materials, stating, “I’m expecting to see a rocky type material that’s very soft, very fragile. It’ll have clay minerals – silicate minerals that have water locked up in their structure. Lots of carbon, so I think we’ll probably see carbonate minerals, and maybe some things we call chondrules and also calcium-aluminum inclusions, which were the very first solid materials to form in our Solar System.”

NASA plans to hold a press conference on October 11 to share their initial findings from these samples. Furthermore, small specimens will be distributed to research teams around the world, with the hope of reporting on a wide range of studies within the next two years.

As Lori Glaze, NASA’s director of planetary science, underscores, “One of the most important parts of a sample-return mission is we take 75% of that sample and we’re going to lock it away for future generations, for people who haven’t even been born yet to work in laboratories that don’t exist today, using instrumentation we haven’t even thought of yet.” This mission, indeed, promises to unlock secrets for generations to come.

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