Asteroid samples from NASA's Origins, Spectral Interpretation, Resource Identification and Security - Regolith Explorer OS (IRIS-REx) have been returned to Earth after a two-and-a-half-year astral journey and seven years after launch.
The sample return capsule carrying 8.8 ounces (250 g) of rock and soil samples from the asteroid Bennu landed safely in the US Department of Defense's Utah Test and Training Range 80 miles (129 km) southwest of Salt Lake City on Sunday at 10:52 a.m. EDT.
A recovery crew raced in as part of a well-rehearsed attempt, fearing that the capsule had been damaged on impact and that the Earth's atmosphere had begun to leak in and contaminate the sample. The capsule was picked up by helicopter and brought to a makeshift field clean room unit in a hangar within an hour and a half. It was then exposed to a nitrogen purge, which entails continuously putting the inert gas inside the capsule to flush out any potential contaminants.
OSIRIS-REx was the first American mission to return samples from an asteroid, launched on September 8, 2016 from Florida's Cape Canaveral Space Force Station atop an Atlas V launch vehicle. On December 3, 2018, the spacecraft landed near the asteroid 101955 Bennu, which has a diameter of 490 meters (1,610 feet). On October 20, 2020, after an extensive survey, OSIRIS-REx made a touch-and-go landing on the asteroid when the craft's sample arm took aboard its scientific cargo.
The sample return capsule was launched toward Earth on May 10, 2021, as the main spacecraft entered orbit around the Sun. The unopened canister will be moved to an airplane and flown to NASA's Johnson Space Center in Houston on Monday, according to NASA.
"Congratulations to the OSIRIS-REx team on a picture-perfect mission – the first American asteroid sample return in history – which will deepen our understanding of the origin of our solar system and its formation," said NASA Administrator Bill Nelson. "Not to mention, Bennu is a potentially hazardous asteroid, and what we learn from the sample will help us better understand the types of asteroids that could come our way. With OSIRIS-REx, Psyche launch (sic) in a couple of weeks, DART’s one year anniversary, and Lucy’s first asteroid approach in November, Asteroid Autumn is in full swing. These missions prove once again that NASA does big things. Things that inspire us and unite us. Things that show nothing is beyond our reach when we work together."