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It's here! Rare asteroid sample lands on Earth after OSIRIS-REx drops cargo

Seven years after OSIRIS-REx was sent into space to retrieve a sample of an asteroid, the NASA-led spacecraft has successfully delivered its cargo to Earth in a picture-perfect touchdown – and Canada is set to receive a piece of the prize.

The capsule landed at the Utah Test and Training Range at 10:52 a.m. EDT after a 3.86-billion mile (or roughly 6.2-billion kilometre) journey, according to an X announcement by NASA.

“This marks the U.S.’s first sample return mission of its kind and will open a time capsule to the beginnings of our solar system,” the agency said on the social media platform.

The mission started in 2016, when the craft was deployed to collect asteroid material that scientists hope could reveal deeper insights about the formation of the solar system.

The target asteroid – known as Bennu – was first reached by OSIRIS-REx in 2018. A sample was then extracted in 2020, with the long journey back to Earth starting in 2021.

The sample capsule entered Earth’s atmosphere this morning and sailed safely to the ground, touching down without a single bounce, roll or skid.

“We stuck the landing,” Dante Lauretta, principal investigator of the OSIRIS-REx mission, said in a NASA press conference Sunday afternoon. “I couldn’t be more proud.”

Scientists say they will be able to open the sample container on Tuesday and start figuring out what exactly we’ve brought back from space.


It was an emotional day for the scientists who had worked on this project for years – especially Lauretta.

“Today capped the end of an almost 20 year adventure for me,” he said, explaining that he had been working towards this day since he was brought onto the project in 2004.

On Sunday, while his colleagues at mission control were tracking the capsule’s progress back to Earth and watching it on video, Lauretta was in a helicopter in the Utah desert, waiting blindly on tenterhooks to hear if the capsule’s parachute had deployed.

It was the last thing that could possibly go wrong.

The OSIRIS-REx spacecraft had successfully cleared the “go, no go” moment earlier that day – the last moment in which NASA could call off the sample drop if there were any issues – and had released the capsule, which then travelled four more hours to reach Earth’s atmosphere. The team were also able to power up the batteries in the capsule which had been dormant for seven years, without which the capsule wouldn’t be able to even try to launch its parachute.

If the main parachute hadn’t deployed for some other reason, it would be a hard landing. That’s what happened in 2004 when a capsule of solar wind samples from the Genesis mission smashed into the desert, severely damaging it.

Lauretta said it was a “pulse-pounding” situation, waiting to hear. A team member was receiving updates through a headset and relaying that information to everyone else in the helicopter, calling out the distance that the capsule had reached every few minutes.

When the capsule passed 60,000 feet, Lauretta started to get concerned – they should’ve heard about the drogue parachute, the smaller chute which deploys first, by that stage.

“I was mentally preparing myself for the worst case scenario,” he said.

“Then we heard ‘main chute detected’ and I literally burst into tears. That was the moment I knew we made it home.”

The capsule landed a little bit east of the target landing area, which the team had already predicted would be the case earlier that week due to atmospheric density and wind speeds.

“This capsule literally has a personality and it understood the assignment,” Tim Priser, chief engineer for deep space exploration at Lockheed Martin, said in the press conference, adding that the capsule had helpfully landed close to a road, making it easy for the recovery team to land their helicopter nearby.

“She made it so easy for us,” he said. “We touched down as soft as a dove. It was just beautiful.”

After a safety team approached the capsule to ensure that there was no danger, the recovery team including Lauretta were able to approach.

“It was like seeing an old friend that you hadn’t seen in a long time,” Lauretta said, adding that apart from looking a little “charred” from re-entry, the capsule was in perfect condition, sitting in a tiny little crater of its own. “I did want to give it a hug, but I knew it would be all sooty.”

The team took environmental measurements from the soil and air in case anything had leaked out of the capsule, and also to preserve what the exact conditions were like when the capsule first touched down on Earth. Then the capsule was whisked away to be prepared in a clean room for further travel to NASA’s Johnson Space Center in Houston.

Later, the team will assess the footage of the descent to find out if the drogue parachute, which deploys ahead of the main chute to stabilize the capsule, actually did deploy on time, as the team was unable to visually see if it deployed at the time it was meant to. The main chute did deploy earlier than expected, but it’s unknown if that was connected to any issues with the drogue chute or not.

“At the end of the day, when that main chute deployed, it basically corrected any of the sins that may have happened ahead of it,” Priser said. “It touched down like a feather.”

Mike Moreau, recovery lead and deputy project manager for OSIRIS-REx, said that the success of these missions provide an invaluable inspiration for future generations. He himself was inspired by the Voyager mission and early space shuttle missions when he was growing up on a dairy farm in Vermont.

“I’m so proud to be part of this team that did this today,” he said.


With the excitement of the re-entry over, scientists are now looking forward to figuring out what is contained in the samples themselves.

Eileen Stansbery, a chief scientist at NASA’s Johnson Space Center, said that entry into the clean room had “gone extremely well,” and that scientists had removed portions of the canister to get a continuous flow of nitrogen into the canister to prevent contamination.

“Once these samples are taken to the Johnson Space Centre, we’ll be able to start removing them, de-integrating the science canister, evaluating those samples and providing them to the scientific community,” she said.

The back shell of the capsule was taken off while she was observing, she said, and the capsule looked “extremely clean on the inside,” almost identical to before it was launched seven years ago.

According to Lauretta, the first thing that scientists will be able to analyse will be the dust on the outside of the sample collector itself, and this analysis will give them a “sneak peak of what might be in store for us.”

It will tell them broadly what the range of minerals might be in the samples and the abundancies of different elements contained within.

“Did we bring back what we thought, or is it something completely different?” he said, adding that knowing the asteroid Bennu, it could be a little bit of both.

“I’m getting really excited about getting into the lab and getting into the samples.”


CTV News' Science and Technology Specialist Dan Riskin says the implications of this achievement should not be underestimated.

“Sometimes the missions that have humans on them get a lot more attention, but this is a mission to an asteroid, and this is where engineering couldn’t have a more difficult mission,” he told CTV News Channel on Sunday.

“It is hard to program a robot to drive across the room, turn around and drive back. But to send a robot out into space to arrive at an asteroid — and to not get a close look at it until they get there — and to get there and find out that the asteroid is not at all what they were expecting, and to have to redesign the mission in some way in order to collect a sample from it, and then it’s supposed to fly back, and it’s supposed to throw this sample back onto the earth and hit a target… This is a really exciting moment.”

What makes an asteroid different from all the rocks on Earth, Riskin said, is that “the ones here on Earth have been weathering.” They have been exposed to oxygen, water, shifting tectonic plates, he explained.

“That asteroid has been sitting still since we got started. It is a time capsule of the distant past, made of the same stuff that our planet is made out of. You really get a chance to see what our origins are when you get a sample like that,” he said.

But the opportunity to look into the past comes with a catch.

“As soon as you open the container, all the oxygen comes rushing in, all the humidity of the air, and it wrecks it.”

Riskin explained that the samples are being kept in sealed containers that expose these rocks to nothing but gravity.

Lauretta said in the news conference that the risk of bringing anything dangerous from the asteroid to Earth was “very, very low,” and that the big worry was the sample getting contaminated by substances from Earth. It’s for this reason that it will take days for scientists just to open the capsule.


Michael Daly, professor of space science at York University, was the lead scientist on the OSIRIS-REx Laser Altimeter (OLA), the Canadian technology that allowed NASA to measure the shape of asteroid Bennu at high spatial resolution, providing insights into the geology, origin and evolution of the asteroid.

“It’s a great day for us,” Daly told CTV News Channel on Sunday. “We’ve been working on this mission since 2008, so it’s kind of a long journey to get here. We’re entering a new phase.”

The capsule carrying the cargo samples was sent to Earth’s orbit from about 68,000 miles (109,435 kilometres) away.

“We have a navigation team that is second to none,” Daly said. “When we plan these trajectories, there’s some uncertainty about where things are going to land. These are sort of ellipses that we project onto the ground, and this one has been doing nothing but shrinking as the team gets a better and better understanding. It’s just a great team to work with.”

The capsule ultimately landed eight kilometres east of the final target ellipsis.

According to the government of Canada website, the Canadian Space Agency’s (CSA) successful OLA contribution, allowing the asteroid to be scanned from up to seven kilometres away, has led to the CSA receiving four per cent of the total returned sample, “thus providing Canada's scientific community with its first-ever direct access to a returned asteroid sample.”

Daly said the laser system was a success, despite some initial problems.

“Bennu surprised us all the way along – it was much rougher than we expected, and this interfered with our first measurements a little bit. We were still able to fulfill our functions at that seven to eight kilometre range from Bennu and as we got closer it just got better and better. It was successful beyond our dreams.”

The OSIRIS-REx Laser Altimeter was designed to scan and measure the surface of asteroids, create a “highly accurate 3D model,” and offer insights about the distribution of craters, slopes, and other surface features, according to the government of Canada.

Over two years, the OLA collected millions of measurements, helping scientists determine the best location on Bennu from which to extract a sample.

According to John Moores, science adviser to the president of the Canadian Space Agency, Canadian scientists have been working on the OSIRIS-REx mission since its inception.

“Canada will become the fifth country in the world to receive a sample collected in space,” Moores said in a recent briefing on the mission.


Amongst the countless collaborators joining efforts to complete this mission was a rock star.

The lead guitarist of Queen, Brian May, who became a PhD astrophysicist after leaving the band, helped scientists come up with a way to 3D visualize the surface of the asteroid so they could pick their sample site.

Riskin says his involvement tells a larger story about the need for creativity in scientific advancement.

“I think the fact that this is a piece of this really points to the importance of arts and science and how it’s all just a matter of creativity,” he said.


Daly says that, in future years, the way we analyze this sample will change as new scientific understandings emerge.

“As we start learning about the sample that will mean we will have more scientific questions to ask.”

NASA says this mission is merely the beginning of new ways to study asteroids. And the next target is already established: Apophis, an asteroid roughly 1,200 feet (roughly 370 metres) in diameter, that will come within 20,000 miles (32,100 kilometres) of Earth in 2029, NASA’s site says.

That mission started today, with the OSIRIS-REx spacecraft officially changing its name to OSIRIS-APEX after it dropped off the sample capsule and performing a divert maneuver to set off on its new path.

“She changed her name on the back of her jersey,” Priser quipped.

OSIRIS-APEX will rendezvous with Apophis in 2029. NASA plans to use spacecraft gas thrusters to “dislodge and study the dust and small rocks on and below Apophis’ surface. 

In a news release, the space agency highlighted how the rocks and dust collected from this most recent asteroid mission, and future ones, will “offer generations of scientists a window in the time when the sun and planets were forming about 4.5 billion years ago.” Top Stories

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