Following years of meticulous planning and hard work by NASA's OSIRIS-REx (Origins, Spectral Interpretation, Resource Identification and Security – Regolith Explorer) team, a capsule containing rocks and dust collected from the asteroid Bennu has successfully returned to Earth. The capsule touched down precisely at 8:52 a.m. MDT (10:52 a.m. EDT) in a designated area of the Department of Defense's Utah Test and Training Range near Salt Lake City.
Within ninety minutes of landing, a helicopter transported the capsule to a temporary clean room, established in a hangar on the training range. In this clean room, the capsule is connected to a continuous flow of nitrogen, a critical step known as a "nitrogen purge." Nitrogen's chemical inertness prevents contamination, maintaining the purity of the sample for scientific analysis.
The Bennu sample, estimated at 8.8 ounces or 250 grams, will be transported, still sealed in its canister, to NASA's Johnson Space Center in Houston on Monday, September 25. At the Space Center, curation scientists will open the canister, extract and weigh the sample, create an inventory of the rocks and dust, and distribute portions to scientists worldwide.
After traveling billions of miles to Bennu and back, the OSIRIS-REx spacecraft released its sample capsule toward Earth's atmosphere at 6:42 a.m. EDT (4:42 a.m. MDT). At that time, the spacecraft was approximately 63,000 miles (102,000 kilometers) from Earth's surface, about one-third of the distance to the Moon.
Traveling at an incredible speed of 27,650 mph (44,500 kph), the capsule entered Earth's atmosphere at 10:42 a.m. EDT (8:42 a.m. MDT), off the coast of California, deploying two parachutes to safely touch down at a gentle speed of 11 mph (18 kph) on the military range.