The capsule was released from the robotic spacecraft OSIRIS-REx.
Team of scientists and technicians was on standby to retrieve the capsule.
A NASA spacecraft, shaped like a gumdrop, carrying the largest soil sample ever collected from an asteroid’s surface, made its re-entry into Earth’s atmosphere on Sunday.
The capsule parachuted down to the Utah desert, marking the successful delivery of this celestial specimen to scientists.
The capsule was released from the robotic spacecraft OSIRIS-REx after the mothership approached within 67,000 miles (107,826 km) of Earth.
The final descent and landing were broadcast on a NASA livestream, concluding a joint six-year mission between NASA and the University of Arizona.
This mission was only the third instance of an asteroid sample being returned to Earth, and it was by far the largest, following similar missions by Japan’s space agency in 2010 and 2020.
Upon landing, the capsule rested nose-down on the sandy Utah desert floor, with a red-and-white parachute that had slowed its high-speed descent positioned just feet away after detaching.
There was some initial doubt about whether a preliminary chute had deployed correctly, but the main chute unfurled as planned, ensuring a soft and nearly flawless landing.
Dante Lauretta, a University of Arizona scientist who had been involved in the project since its inception, expressed his emotions, saying, “We heard ‘main chute detected,’ and I literally broke into tears.”
Tim Prizer, a Lockheed Martin engineer on the project, added, “We touched down as soft as a dove.”
The sample was collected from the asteroid Bennu three years ago by OSIRIS-REx. Bennu, classified as a “near-Earth object,” periodically passes close to our planet but poses a minimal impact risk.
This carbon-rich asteroid, approximately 500 meters (547 yards) wide, holds valuable clues about the origins and evolution of rocky planets like Earth due to its unchanged chemistry and mineralogy over billions of years.
The Bennu sample, estimated to be around 250 grams (8.8 ounces), is significantly larger than samples returned from previous asteroid missions.
These samples are of great interest to scientists as they could contain organic molecules similar to those necessary for life’s emergence.
A team of scientists and technicians was on standby to retrieve the capsule and ensure the sample remained free of terrestrial contamination.
The capsule and its contents were transported by helicopter to a “clean room” at the Utah test range for initial examination.
It will be flown on a military transport plane to NASA’s Johnson Space Center in Houston, where the canister will be opened on Tuesday to distribute the samples to approximately 200 scientists in 60 laboratories worldwide.
The primary part of the OSIRIS-REx spacecraft will continue its mission to explore another near-Earth asteroid, Apophis.