Gallery: OSIRIS-REx team welcomes Bennu sample to Earth
After a seven-year journey covering 4 billion miles, the OSIRIS-REx spacecraft flew past Earth on Sunday to deliver its bounty – an estimated 8.8 ounces, or 250 grams, of rocks and dust from the asteroid Bennu.
The capsule with the asteroid sample touched down right on time – just before 8 a.m. Tucson time – in the Utah desert, at the Department of Defense's Utah Test and Training Range. Dante Lauretta, principal investigator for OSIRIS-REx at UArizona, was among the first people to approach the sample return capsule after it landed.
"It was like seeing an old friend that you hadn't seen for a long time," Lauretta said during a post-landing press conference hosted by NASA at the range. "I did want to give it a hug."
After determining the capsule was safe to approach, scientists bagged it and transported it via a cable below a helicopter to a nearby clean room. The canister inside the capsule, which holds the sample, underwent a "nitrogen purge" to keep out earthly contaminants and keep the sample pure for scientific analyses.
The canister is now en route to NASA's Johnson Space Center in Houston, where curation scientists will disassemble it, extract and weigh the sample, create an inventory of the rocks and dust, and, over time, distribute pieces of Bennu to scientists worldwide.
The Bennu sample will help scientists make discoveries to better understand planet formation and the origin of organics and water that led to life on Earth, as well as benefit all of humanity by learning more about potentially hazardous asteroids.
The delivery marked the end of the space-voyaging phase of the mission, which launched on Sept. 8, 2016. Key milestones along the way included the spacecraft's arrival at Bennu on Dec. 3, 2018, the search for a safe sample-collection site in 2019 and 2020, sample collection on Oct. 20, 2020, and the return trip home starting on May 10, 2021.
Once the spacecraft jettisoned the capsule at 3:42 a.m. Tucson time on Sunday, it officially began its extended mission, OSIRIS-APEX, to study and map another potentially hazardous near-Earth asteroid, called Apophis. Planetary sciences assistant professor and OSIRIS-REx deputy principal investigator Dani DellaGiustina will serve as principal investigator for OSIRIS-APEX.
See key moments from Sunday's sample return in the gallery above, featuring photos from UArizona photographer Chris Richards and NASA photographer Keegan Barber.