The OSIRIS-REx spacecraft dropped off a sample of asteroid Bennu on the morning of Sunday, Sept. 24 on the Utah Test and Training Range near Dugway Proving Ground.
The sample was part of a $1 billion Kennedy Space Center NASA mission that began on Sept. 8, 2016. The asteroid is said to be a well-preserved 4.5-billion-year-old remnant of the early solar system. The capsule that the sample arrived in weighed approximately 110 pounds, was 31 inches in diameter, and stood 20 inches tall.
NASA’s Regolith Explorer (Osiris-REx) spacecraft released a capsule by parachute 63,000 miles above earth containing the sample from Bennu at around 4:42 a.m. Touchdown was clocked at approximately 8:52 a.m., several minutes earlier than expected. The sample entered the Earth’s atmosphere above San Francisco traveling more than 27,000 miles per hour. During the come down, it was tracked by the Air Force and NASA by cameras on the ground and in the air.
The sample touched down where expected near Dugway on the Utah Test and Training Range border.
“The sample made a soft landing on the sand we have out here,” Dugway’s Sgt. Major David Henderson said. “It landed the way it was supposed to and it didn’t bounce or anything.”
After landing, the 9 ounce sample was retrieved by NASA’s OSIRIS-REx team. From there, the sample was taken to a room in Dugway to help reduce contamination and to ensure the sample contained no hazardous gasses and fumes.
Monday morning, an Air Force plane flew the asteroid sample to Johnson Space Center in Houston, Texas. There it will be analyzed by a team of 200 members from more than 35 global institutions. These officials will investigate how planets formed and how life began, as well as how asteroids could impact Earth in the future.
Scientists chose to study the asteroid Bennu because of its rich carbon consistency, meaning it could contain the chemical building blocks of life. It also has a very small chance of hitting earth in the next century, according to information from NASA.
Every few years, Bennu flies relatively close to Earth, crossing the Earth’s orbital path, making it accessible to a mission of this magnitude. It takes Bennu 435 days to orbit around the sun and every six years, it passes within 186,000 miles to Earth.
Dugway was chosen to participate in the mission because of its large area. It is the third largest Army installation in the United States.
“For many years, Dugway has served as not only an asset to the Army but also to joint forces and other government agencies,” Henderson said. “This is one of many events that Dugway and NASA have partnered together on. This shows the coordination and support we have for each other … Sunday’s event was another opportunity for not only Dugway, but the United States Army to show our support and coordination with other agencies.”
“We are grateful for the kindness and support the town of Tooele gave everyone on this mission,” Rani C. Gran, communications manager at NASA told the Transcript. “Many people on the NASA OSIRIS-REx team stayed at Tooele hotels, visited restaurants, and employed services there.”
Dugway and NASA have worked together on similar projects in the past, including Genesis in September of 2004 and Stardust in January of 2006.
The OSIRIS-REx mission launched from Earth in 2016.
The OSIRIS-REx is not the first mission to deliver an asteroid sample to Earth. The JAXA Hayabusa mission brought back space specks from asteroid Itokawa. The JAXA Hayabusa2 mission brought back about five grams of asteroid material from Ryugu in November 2021.
“For many of us, this was a once in a lifetime opportunity,” Henderson said about the landing.