Updated Sep 24, 2023 - Science

NASA returns its largest asteroid sample to Earth

Two side by side black and white pictures showing the arm of a spacecraft touching the surface of an asteroid and kicking up particles

One of OSIRIS-REx's arms touching the surface of asteroid Bennu. Photo: NASA/Goddard/University of Arizona/Lockheed Martin

NASA's OSIRIS-REx mission to sample an asteroid brought its rubbly haul back to Earth Sunday.

Why it matters: Scientists hope to use high-powered lab equipment to study the sample of asteroid Bennu to learn more about how our solar system has evolved over billions of years.

How it works: The OSIRIS-REx sample came back through the atmosphere Sunday, landing in the Department of Defense's Utah Test and Training Range.

  • After being released from the spacecraft, the capsule containing the sample landed under parachutes.
  • Touchdown took place at 10:52 am ET.
  • The OSIRIS-REx spacecraft is now on its way to study its next target: asteroid Apophis.

Catch up quick: OSIRIS-REx launched in 2016, and NASA nabbed its sample of Bennu in 2020.

  • The researchers behind the mission were surprised to find that the material on the outer part of Bennu where the spacecraft collected its sample was "loosely packed" and would feel like "stepping into a pit of plastic balls that are popular play areas for kids," NASA said.

The big picture: Asteroids and comets are thought to be leftovers from the dawn of the solar system.

  • Scientists hope that by learning more about them, they can shed light on some of the mysteries of our universe — including how water, and even life, took hold on Earth.

Editor's note: This story has been updated with additional details throughout.

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