After traveling billions of miles over seven years to hit an asteroid and bring back a sample, NASA’s Osiris-REx mission finally sent its precious contents toward Earth’s atmosphere.
The spacecraft successfully released a sample canister containing about a cup of asteroid as it passed within 63,000 miles of the planet’s surface, officials announced Sunday morning.
The canister is expected to contain roughly a coffee cup’s worth of rocks and other materials collected from the asteroid Bennu, which was more than 200 million miles away at the time.
This single portion of space rock will mark the largest haul of extraterrestrial material brought back by any nation to Earth since the Apollo astronauts brought pieces of the moon home, and the culmination of the first attempt at the NASA to bring samples from an asteroid back to Earth.
Watch NASA’s live stream of the sample return here:
Asteroids represent the primordial building material of our early solar system, untouched by planetary processes or the presence of living beings. As such, they could offer scientists a window into the type of chemistry that could have led to life on Earth.
But for that to happen, that cartridge will now have to complete the final leg of its journey on its own. To do this, it will have to endure temperatures hotter than lava and slow down to a speed 36 times the speed of sound before landing in Utah’s Great Salt Lake Desert.
Officials say they expect the capsule to land in Utah shortly before 11 a.m. After retrieving it, team members will transport the canister to NASA’s Johnson Space Center in Houston, Texas, which houses the repository for space samples like moon rocks. On Tuesday, if all goes well, they will open the cartridge in a special laboratory.
After that, the goal is to store part of the sample so that future generations of scientists can also study these samples with more advanced tools – just as scientists today still study moon rocks that astronauts from Apollo brought back so many decades ago.