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successful return of Nasa capsule with asteroid sample hailed


successful return of Nasa capsule with asteroid sample hailed

Sitting isolated in the arid landscape of the Utah desert, its orange and white parachute cast aside, the Osiris-Rex capsule was a picture of stillness. Yet all around, scientists were swinging into action, rushing to recover its precious cargo: 4.6bn-year-old chunks of space rock.

Racing towards the scene were four helicopters bearing scientists, engineers and military safety personnel. Their mission: to recover the capsule as quickly as possible to prevent samples of asteroid Bennu from becoming contaminated by planet Earth.

Then, more joy: after checking for any unexploded ordnance and potential outgassing from the capsule, the all clear was given. Sara Russell, professor of the Natural History Museum in London who is deputy lead for mineralogy and petrology on the mission, watched the events unfold on a screen in the UK.

“I’m feeling quite emotional and tearful about it all at the moment,” she said. “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!”

The successful return of the largest asteroid sample ever to be recovered marks the culmination of a seven-year journey in which a robotic spacecraft the size of a transit van was sent to scout out the asteroid Bennu, scoop up samples of its pebbles and dust, and then return them to Earth.

That mission has now been accomplished: after being released from the Osiris-Rex spacecraft at 6.42 ET (11.42 BST), the capsule hurtled towards Earth, entering the atmosphere four hours later at 27,650mph (44,500km/h). As it did it experienced temperatures of 5,000F (2,760C).

“What an incredible day this has been,” Nasa planetary science division director Lori Glaze said at a news briefing later on Sunday. “These types of samples – they are truly the gifts that keep on giving. They are a treasure … for scientific analysis for years and years to come, to our kids and our grandkids and people who haven’t even been born yet.”

Meanwhile, about 20 minutes after the capsule’s release, the Osiris-Rex spacecraft itself set off on a new mission, blasting off to explore another asteroid, Apophis.

Back on Earth, scenes from teams on the ground were of silent expectation, all eyes watching huge screens. As news that the capsule had entered the Earth’s atmosphere came through, smiles broke out, while an infrared tracking camera on a high altitude plane showed the first images of the capsule streaking through the sky.

Shortly after the first drogue parachute was deployed, the capsule’s main parachute was released ahead of schedule – unfurling at 20,000ft rather than the expected 5,000ft.

The upshot was an early arrival, with the capsule sailing to Earth before touching down on the Utah Test and Training Range (UTTR) at 10.52am ET (15.52am BST). The recovery team, arriving by helicopter, then set to work packaging the capsule before whisking it away to a nearby temporary clean-room facility.

The mission’s success was met with applause in the control room, with scientists watching Nasa’s live video feed elsewhere also buoyed by the triumph.
Prof Neil Bowles of the University of Oxford, who is among the scientists who will be studying the space rocks, said he was relieved to see the sample capsule on the ground. “[I’m] really excited for the next steps, getting the sample capsule safe in the clean room at Johnson Space Center and then seeing what is inside. So much new science to come!” he said.

With the rocks that comprise asteroid Bennu thought to be about 4.6bn years old, the samples contain some of the oldest materials formed in our solar system. What’s more, they are known to be rich in carbon-based substances and water-containing minerals.

As such, scientists hope the samples will help them understand the ingredients that went into making planets including our own, and how those materials came together to create environments suitable for life.

Crucial to this goal was making sure that the space rocks did not become contaminated by the terrestrial environment.

Kerri Donaldson Hanna, a planetary geologist at the University of Central Florida who has been working with the Oxford team, said the team confirmed that the capsule was not breached as it came through the Earth’s atmosphere and its safe landing means the sample should be in great shape for scientific analysis.

“Seeing the sample return capsule sitting sweetly on top of the desert waiting for the science team to recover it and the sample, it is exhilarating to know that all that the team has worked for has ended in such a success,” she said.

Osiris-Rex principal investigator Dante Lauretta, who was part of the recovery team, added: “It was pulse-pounding.

“I couldn’t be more proud … Not only did we bring this mission in on schedule, under budget and delivered more science than we had ever thought was possible with the encounter with Bennu, but we think we’ve got a lot of sample in that canister.”


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