NASA first launched OSIRIS-REx seven years ago. Now, it’s returning to Earth bearing a sample from the asteroid Bennu.
United Launch Alliance via NASA
An asteroid sample collected by NASA’s OSIRIS-REx spacecraft landed in the Utah desert Sunday.
The landing marked the end of NASA’s first ever mission to collect an asteroid sample.
The rocks and dust from asteroid Bennu will prove useful to scientists for centuries to come.
In 2016, NASA launched OSIRIS-REx, the first US mission to collect samples from an asteroid.
Now, the historic mission is coming to an end seven years later. The sample capsule from OSIRIS-REx — which NASA calls the daredevil spacecraft — landed in the Utah desert Sunday morning. It was carrying rock and dust samples collected by the spacecraft from the asteroid Bennu in 2020.
Those samples will prove useful to scientists born centuries from now.
“Those samples will be analyzed in the weeks, months, years, decades, really centuries to come,” Noah Petro, a research space scientist with NASA, told Insider.
That’s because scientists will be searching the samples for organic materials and amino acids — the building blocks of proteins — to better understand how life may have developed on Earth billions of years ago, Petro said.
Finding that organic material is everyone’s hope, but it may be a bit of a “long shot,” Richard Burns, project manager for OSIRIS-REx, said at a press conference Friday.
“What would be really exciting is if we saw any evidence that those amino acids had started to link together to form a chain, which we call peptides. That would give us some indication that, towards the origin of life, protein evolution may have occurred,” Burns said.
Researchers targeted Bennu because they believed there would be carbon and water locked up in the clay of the asteroid, Dante Lauretta, principal investigator for OSIRIS-REx, said at the press conference.
The OSIRIS-REx mission hasn’t been total smooth sailing for the team, however. Soon after the spacecraft first gathered the Bennu sample, a valve on the container couldn’t close properly because of how much sample was inside. As a result, dust began leaking out, Insider previously reported.
The team had to pivot, storing the sample inside its return capsule straight away instead of weighing it first as planned.
“We were almost a victim of our own success here,” Lauretta said at the time.