A spacecraft capsule carrying a sample of rocky material collected from an asteroid is scheduled to make a parachute landing in the Utah desert on Sunday. This is the third asteroid sample returned to Earth and the largest one yet. The samples were collected by the OSIRIS-REx mission, a collaboration between NASA and scientists from the University of Arizona.

The OSIRIS-REx spacecraft was designed to collect samples from the carbon-rich asteroid Bennu. Equipped with cameras, the spacecraft captured crucial images and developed 3D maps of the asteroid. It also measured Bennu’s temperature, mapped its mineral and chemical composition, and used X-rays and infrared light to observe it.

The spacecraft’s robotic arm collected loose rocks and soil from the asteroid’s surface, sealing them inside a sample return capsule. After separating from the spacecraft, the capsule began its descent through Earth’s atmosphere.

The OSIRIS-REx mission started in 2016 when the spacecraft was launched from Florida. It arrived at Bennu in 2018, making contact with the asteroid’s surface for about five seconds in 2020 to collect the samples. In May 2021, the spacecraft began its journey back to Earth.

The sample is expected to land at the Utah Test and Training Range in the Western Desert of Utah on Sunday. Scientists will be present to recover the capsule upon landing. The sample will not contain any contaminants such as viruses or bacteria, ensuring its safety. Similar precautions were taken with samples from previous missions, such as the Apollo 11 moon mission.

Bennu, the target asteroid of the OSIRIS-REx mission, is a small carbon-rich asteroid that comes relatively close to Earth every six years. Scientists hope to study its composition to better understand the risks and characteristics of near-Earth asteroids. They also aim to discover more information about the potential supply of life-forming compounds and the possibility of extracting water from asteroids for rocket fuel.

After the mission, the OSIRIS-REx spacecraft will be renamed OSIRIS-APEX and reused to study another near-Earth asteroid, Apophis, in 2029.

To watch the live coverage of the OSIRIS-REx capsule landing, you can follow the NASA live link.

Sources: Al Jazeera, NASA