Back home after a four BILLION mile ride! NASA's first asteroid samples land on Earth in stunning live video – as space experts await 'moment of truth' when package is opened

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  • Scientists raced to the landing spot in the Utah desert after watching its parachute descent
  • The spacecraft had travelled four billion miles on its mission to collect a cup-sized sample of asteroid in a new first for Nasa 
  • Scientists say the ‘moment of truth’ will come when they open it in the next couple of days 

NASA scientists screamed in delight as they watched a parachute deliver their first samples of material from a world beyond the Moon.

The Osiris-Rex spacecraft dropped off the cup-sized container of rubble from the Bennu asteroid into Earth orbit on Sunday morning before heading off to its next target.

Scientists gingerly approached the capsule after it came to rest in the Utah desert at 10.52a ET, testing the air nearby for extra-terrestrial contaminants and carrying it under a helicopter to the Dugway Defense Department facility nearby.

Seven years after launch Nasa said the ‘real moment of truth’ will come when they open the 4.5billion-year-old contents at NASA´s Johnson Space Center in Houston in the next couple of days.

‘We’re going back to the dawn of the solar system, we’re looking for clues as to why Earth is a habitable world, this rare jewel in outer space that has oceans, it has a protective atmosphere,’ said lead scientist Dante Lauretta.

The capsule came to a rest in the Utah desert on Sunday morning after being dropped by parachute 

NASA scientists had to the test the nearby air and soil for extra-terrestrial contaminants before touching the capsule

NASA scientists had to the test the nearby air and soil for extra-terrestrial contaminants before touching the capsule  

‘The biggest question is the origin of life and we believe that we’re bringing back that kind of material, maybe the seeds of life that these asteroids delivered at the beginning.’

Japan, the only other country to bring back asteroid samples, gathered about a teaspoon in a pair of asteroid missions.

Osiris-Rex, the mothership, rocketed away on the $1 billion mission in 2016. It reached Bennu two years later and, using a long stick vacuum, grabbed rubble from the small roundish space rock in 2020. 

By the time it returned, the spacecraft had logged 4 billion miles (6.2 billion kilometers).

The capsule hit the atmosphere at 27,650mph after being released by the spacecraft at 6.42am ET.

But it was crucial that the sample remained uncontaminated by anything from Earth and the parachute had slowed it to a stately 11mph after deploying at 20,000ft.

NASA´s recovery effort in Utah included helicopters as well as a temporary clean room set up at the Defense Department´s Utah Test and Training Range. 

The samples will be flown Monday morning to a new lab at NASA´s Johnson Space Center in Houston. 

The building already houses the hundreds of pounds (kilograms) of moon rocks gathered by the Apollo astronauts more than a half-century ago.

Lauretta of the University of Arizona, will accompany the samples to Texas. The opening of the container in Houston in the next day or two will be the ‘real moment of truth’, given the uncertainty over the amount inside, he said ahead of the landing.

Engineers estimate the canister holds 250 grams (8.82 ounces) of material from Bennu, plus or minus 100 grams (plus or minus 3.53 ounces). Even at the low end, it will easily surpass the minimum requirement of the mission, Lauretta said.

It will take a few weeks to get a precise measurement, said NASA´s lead curator Nicole Lunning.

NASA plans a public show-and-tell in October.

The seven-year odyssey to grab a fistful of asteroid ended on Sunday in the Utah desert

The seven-year odyssey to grab a fistful of asteroid ended on Sunday in the Utah desert

NASA beamed live footage of the capsule's descent on the final stage of a four billion mile mission

NASA beamed live footage of the capsule’s descent on the final stage of a four billion mile mission

Scientists shouted for joy as the capsule touched down at the successful conclusion of the seven-year mission 

Helicopter crews had been on standby since before dawn to race to the landing site as the capsule drifted back down to Earth

Helicopter crews had been on standby since before dawn to race to the landing site as the capsule drifted back down to Earth

The Bennu asteroid is around 1,500ft in diameter and thought to be a fragment of a much bigger predecessor that disintegrated after a collision with another rock
An artist's impression shows how the spacecraft hovered over the asteroid before plunging its sampler into the loose and crumbly surface

The Bennu asteroid is around 1,500ft in diameter and thought to be a fragment of a much bigger predecessor that disintegrated after a collision with another rock

The spacecraft made a record of the sites where it made its digs on the surface of Bennu

The spacecraft made a record of the sites where it made its digs on the surface of Bennu 

The spacecraft's camera pictured the sampler head full of rocks and dust collected from the surface of the asteroid seconds after impact

The spacecraft’s camera pictured the sampler head full of rocks and dust collected from the surface of the asteroid seconds after impact

The remains of its parachute were clearly visible as scientists made their first approach to the capsule sitting peacefully on the Utah desert sand

The remains of its parachute were clearly visible as scientists made their first approach to the capsule sitting peacefully on the Utah desert sand 

Scientists wrap the returned capsule in protective sheeting for its trip to the laboratory

Scientists wrap the returned capsule in protective sheeting for its trip to the laboratory

A scientists made sure the capsule was securely fastened as the helicopter hovered overhead
The capsule was aloft once more for the short journey to the Defense Department´s Utah Test and Training Range

A helicopter hoisted the precious cargo into the air for the journey to the Defense Department´s Utah Test and Training Range nearby 

Dangling below a helicopter is child's play after a four billion mile journey across the solar system

Dangling below a helicopter is child’s play after a four billion mile journey across the solar system

Gently the capsule was lowered into the car park of the Defense Department´s Utah Test and Training Range

Gently the capsule was lowered into the car park of the Defense Department´s Utah Test and Training Range

Scientists were taking no chances with contamination as they prepared to bring their cargo into the lab

Scientists were taking no chances with contamination as they prepared to bring their cargo into the lab

It will remain inside the facility's clean room until it is transferred to NASA´s Johnson Space Center in Houston, Texas, where the contents will finally be revealed

It will remain inside the facility’s clean room until it is transferred to NASA´s Johnson Space Center in Houston, Texas, where the contents will finally be revealed 

Currently orbiting the sun 50 million miles (81 million kilometers) from Earth, Bennu is about one-third of a mile (one-half of a kilometer) across, roughly the size of the Empire State Building.

The name Bennu was selected from more than eight thousand entries by students in dozens of countries around the world who entered the ‘Name that Asteroid!’ contest in 2012.

Third-grade student Michael Puzio from North Carolina suggested the winning name in reference to an ancient Egyptian mythological bird.

The asteroid is shaped like a spinning top and is believed to be the broken fragment of a much larger space rock.

During its two-year survey, Osiris-Rex found Bennu to be a heap of rubble full of boulders and craters. 

The surface was so loose that the spacecraft´s vacuum arm sank a foot or two (0.5 meters) into the asteroid, sucking up more material than anticipated and jamming the lid.

But these close-up observations may come in handy late in the next century. 

Bennu is regarded as the most dangerous rock in the Solar System because its intersecting orbit with Earth gives it the highest chance of hitting the planet of any known space object.  

It is expected to come dangerously close to Earth in September 2182 – exactly 159 years to the day after Sunday’s scientific triumph.

The data gleaned by Osiris-Rex will help with any asteroid-deflection effort, according to Lauretta.

Osiris-Rex is already chasing after the asteroid Apophis, and will reach it in 2029.

This was NASA´s third sample return from a deep-space robotic mission. The Genesis spacecraft dropped off collected particles of solar wind in 2004, but the samples were compromised when the parachute failed and the capsule slammed into the ground. The Stardust spacecraft successfully delivered comet dust in 2006.

NASA´s plans to return samples from Mars are on hold after an independent review board criticized the cost and complexity. 

With virtually no gravity to assist on Bennu, the spacecraft had to be absolutely precise to succeed on its 1,500ft target in outer space

With virtually no gravity to assist on Bennu, the spacecraft had to be absolutely precise to succeed on its 1,500ft target in outer space  

This map by NASA shows the Nightingale Hazard Map and the TAG location (top right) and Osiris-Rex's robotic arm making contact (bottom right)

This map by NASA shows the Nightingale Hazard Map and the TAG location (top right) and Osiris-Rex’s robotic arm making contact (bottom right)

This is the 11ft-long TAG robotic arm which NASA used to briefly touch the asteroid Bennu as part of its daring high-speed maneuver

This is the 11ft-long TAG robotic arm which NASA used to briefly touch the asteroid Bennu as part of its daring high-speed maneuver

The Martian rover Perseverance has spent the past two years collecting core samples for eventual transport to Earth.

But Nasa Administrator Bill Nelson was overjoyed as he congratulated mission staff on their achievement yesterday.

‘You designed it, you built it, it’s the largest asteroid sample ever received on Earth and it shows that Nasa does big things,’ he told them.

‘It wasn’t mission impossible. The impossible became possible. Thank you all.’







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