NASA’s first asteroid sample landed safely on Earth Sunday morning near Salt Lake City, Utah.
The sample, which is a capsule of rocks and dust from asteroid Bennu, was released in a flyby of Earth by NASA’s Osiris-Rex spacecraft, which released the sample around 63,000 miles out, NASA said in its announcement. The sample landed nearly four hours later in a targeted area of the Department of Defense’s Utah Test and Training Range near Salt Lake City.
The sample was taken by helicopter to a temporary clean room where it is connected to a continuous flow of nitrogen to keep out contaminants from Earth, leaving the sample pure for research.
Scientists estimate the capsule holds at least a cup of rubble but will not be sure until the container is opened in the coming days, according to The Associated Press, which said the sample marks the biggest haul from beyond the Moon.
NASA said the samples from Bennu will help scientists better understand planet formation as well as potentially hazardous asteroids.
The sample will be taken to NASA’s Johnson Space Center in Houston where scientists will dissemble the canister, take inventory of the rocks and dust, and eventually distribute the pieces to scientists around the world.
“Congratulations to the OSIRIS-REx team on a picture-perfect mission – the first American asteroid sample return in history – which will deepen our understanding of the origin of our solar system and its formation,” said NASA Administrator Bill Nelson in a statement. “Not to mention, Bennu is a potentially hazardous asteroid, and what we learn from the sample will help us better understand the types of asteroids that could come our way.”
The landing marks the end of a seven-year journey since the Osiris-Rex spacecraft was launched in September 2016. NASA said the spacecraft arrived at Bennu in December 2018, before spending the next two years searching for a safe collection site. The spacecraft began its journey back home over two years later in May, 2021.
Bennu is currently orbiting the sun around 50 million miles from Earth and is around one-third-of-a-mile across and around the size of the Empire State Building if it was shaped like a spinning top, The AP reported. Bennu is expected to come dangerously close to Earth in 2182, which could possibly be close enough to hit.
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