Nasa's OSIRIS-REx spacecraft is preparing to return to Earth on Sunday, carrying what is described as the "largest soil sample" ever collected from an asteroid.
The capsule contains approximately a cup of gravelly asteroid material and is set to parachute into Utah's desert to deliver this celestial specimen to scientists.
This mission represents a collaborative effort between Nasa and the University of Arizona, with the primary goal of retrieving and studying material from the asteroid Bennu. Bennu, a small carbon-rich asteroid, is of significant interest due to its unchanged chemistry and mineralogy over billions of years, offering valuable insights into the origins and evolution of rocky planets like Earth.
OSIRIS-REx embarked on its mission in September 2016 and reached Bennu in 2018. After nearly two years of orbiting the asteroid, the spacecraft used its robot arm to successfully collect a sample of the surface material in October 2020. Following this achievement, OSIRIS-REx departed Bennu in May 2021, commencing its journey back to Earth.
The sample-return capsule is scheduled to separate from the spacecraft at 6:42 am EDT, initiating its final descent to Earth and is expected to touch down around four hours later in a designated landing zone west of Salt Lake City. Once it arrives, the sample will be transported to Nasa's Johnson Space Center located in Houston, where it will undergo examination and be divided into smaller specimens for analysis by scientists in 60 laboratories across the globe.
This mission marks the third-ever attempt to return an asteroid sample to Earth, and it is the most substantial one yet. Previous missions by Japan's space agency in 2010 and 2020 also aimed to retrieve asteroid samples. The success of OSIRIS-REx holds the promise of providing critical insights into the early solar system and potentially uncovering the role of celestial objects in seeding life on our planet.
Moreover, the OSIRIS-REx spacecraft is anticipated to continue its mission by exploring another near-Earth asteroid known as Apophis, further advancing our comprehension of these celestial bodies and their significance within the cosmos.