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NASA’s capsule has successfully landed in Utah, bearing the most significant soil sample ever retrieved from an asteroid.
On Sunday, Flight Control declared, “We have touchdown!” as the capsule, having been dropped from the OSIRIS-REx spacecraft earlier, landed safely on the US military’s Utah Test and Training Range near Salt Lake City. The forthcoming days will see the samples transported to NASA’s Johnson Space Center in Houston.
This facility already holds around 400kg of moon rock acquired by the Apollo missions over fifty years ago. According to estimates, the capsule may contain at least a cup of rubble from the asteroid Bennu, though the exact quantity will be clear only once it’s opened. Dante Lauretta, the mission’s chief scientist, emphasized the suspense regarding the sample’s size, referring to the imminent unsealing in Houston as “the real moment of truth.”
Originating from Bennu, an asteroid discovered in 1999 and known for its proximity to Earth, the capsule’s content is particularly significant for researchers. Bennu’s composition—largely unchanged for 4.5 billion years—might provide crucial insights into the early solar system and the evolution of rocky planets like our own. In addition, the asteroid could harbor organic molecules essential for microbial life’s inception.
This wouldn’t be the first time such compounds were detected in asteroid samples; Japan’s Hayabusa2 mission discovered two organic compounds in samples from the Ryugu asteroid a few years ago.