A NASA mission successfully retrieved the largest sample of asteroid rock ever on Sunday.
The Origins, Spectral Interpretation, Resource Identification, and Security–Regolith Explorer (OSIRIS-REx) space capsule touched down in the Utah desert just as scheduled, bringing with it 8.8 ounces of space rock fragments estimated to be as ancient as 4.6 billion years old.
To avoid contamination of the sample, a team of six donned bunny suits, nitrile gloves, and more to disassemble the capsule at the Department of Defense’s Utah Test and Training Range.
The scientists removed the unopened sample canister inside and prepared the sample for transport to Houston’s Johnson Space Center. A continuous flow of nitrogen will keep contaminants out in order to provide a true window into what comprises the celestial bodies around us.
Those involved in the mission are overjoyed at the prospect of studying this material to uncover the secrets behind the formation of the Sun and planets billions of years ago.
“I’m feeling quite emotional and tearful about it all at the moment,” Sara Russell, deputy lead of mineralogy and petrology for the OSIRIS-REx mission and a professor for the Natural History Museum in London, said, according to The Guardian.
“I’m so incredibly impressed with the team that successfully brought back this rock from space, and really excited and privileged to be part of the team that will get to analyse it. The whole mission has worked like a dream!” Russell added.
As previously reported in The Dallas Express, NASA had been painstakingly preparing for this retrieval mission for seven years. The target was the asteroid Bennu, which was discovered by scientists in 1999 and approaches Earth once every six years.
The OSIRIS-REx craft was launched in 2016 from Cape Canaveral and reached Bennu in 2020. It collected the celestial fragments and placed them inside a Sample Return Capsule that was then sent to Earth in May 2021.
It is currently traveling to another asteroid called Apophis, which is next scheduled to pass by Earth in 2029.
When the 1,100-foot body was first discovered in 2004, many were concerned about an imminent collision between it and Earth. Subsequent assessments of its orbit have since shown that Apophis shouldn’t risk impact with the blue planet for at least another century.
As extensively covered in The Dallas Express, space missions led by both private and national actors have surged these past years.
A primary target has been the Moon, with nations and private enterprises racing to the unexplored Southern Pole in hopes of finding water and establishing a long-term base for conducting missions into deep space.
For instance, NASA’s Artemis program is currently preparing for a manned mission to orbit the Moon next year, laying the groundwork for a lunar landing in late 2025.