A NASA space capsule carrying the largest soil sample ever scooped up from the surface of an asteroid streaked through Earth's atmosphere on Sunday and parachuted into the Utah desert, delivering the celestial specimen to scientists.
The gumdrop-shaped capsule, released from the robotic spacecraft OSIRIS-REx as the mothership passed within 67,000 miles of Earth hours earlier, touched down within a designated landing zone west of Salt Lake City on the US military's vast Utah Test and Training Range.
The final descent and landing, shown on a NASA livestream, capped a six-year joint mission between the US space agency and the University of Arizona. It marked only the third asteroid sample, and by far the biggest, ever returned to Earth for analysis, following two similar missions by Japan's space agency ending in 2010 and 2020.
OSIRIS-REx collected its specimen three years ago from Bennu, a small, carbon-rich asteroid discovered in 1999. The space rock is classified as a "near-Earth object" because it passes relatively close to our planet every six years, though the odds of an impact are considered remote.
Apparently made up of a loose collection of rocks, like a rubble pile, Bennu measures just 500 meters (1,600 ft) across, making it slightly wider than the Empire State Building is tall but tiny compared with the Chicxulub asteroid that struck Earth some 66 million years ago, wiping out the dinosaurs.
OSIRIS-REx is already chasing after the asteroid Apophis, and will reach it in 2029.
NASA’s plans to return samples from Mars are on hold after an independent review board criticized the cost and complexity. The Martian rover Perseverance has spent the past two years collecting core samples for eventual transport to Earth.