TAMPA, Fla. (WFLA) — A mission seven years in the making will be fulfilled on Sunday when a sample of an asteroid will land on Earth.
NASA launched a spacecraft OSIRIS-REx in 2016. The spacecraft set its sights on asteroid Bennu. As the spacecraft approached the asteroid in 2020, a robotic arm reached out and took an 8.8-ounce sample of dust and rock off the surface.
The arm tucked the sample safely away into a capsule inside the spacecraft. OSIRIS-REx continued to orbit and study the asteroid for six months before beginning its journey back to Earth in 2021.
On Sunday, as the spacecraft approaches Earth, the capsule containing the sample will be ejected into Earth’s atmosphere. The capsule will deploy parachutes to slow it down and it is expected to safely land in the Utah desert where researchers will be waiting to retrieve it. It will immediately be taken to NASA’s Johnson Space Center in Texas where the sample will be divided among many scientists. It will be extensively studied for years to come.
According to NASA, there is evidence that similar asteroids delivered organic compounds necessary for life to Earth billions of years ago, which is one reason why they picked this asteroid. The other was that it was relatively close to Earth and could be reached in a reasonable amount of time.
The asteroid sample is thought to date back to the early days of the solar system, and is made up of rocks that have been untouched or weathered by a planetary atmosphere. NASA hopes that the pebbles may provide some new scientific insight into that period 4.5 billion years ago.
The spacecraft will then continue on a journey toward a new asteroid, Apophis. It will reach and begin studying Apophis in 2029. This asteroid is expected to make a close fly-by of Earth but will not actually impact Earth.