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What to know about NASA’s OSIRIS-REx asteroid sample return mission

Keegan Barber/NASA via Getty Images

(NEW YORK) — A seven-year-long NASA mission has come to an end with the first asteroid sample collected in space.

This capsule, the size of a microwave oven, landed safely on Sunday morning to a crowd of cheering spectators — a bit earlier than planned but exactly in the manner it was supposed to land.

Before it landed, the capsule’s cover was ejected at 102,000 feet above Earth’s atmosphere, and rogue parachutes were deployed to stabilize it.

Operations for the capsule have begun. It will take several hours to recover and process it, officials said.

Back in September 2016, the federal space agency launched the OSIRIS-REx spacecraft on a daring mission to snare a batch of rocks from the asteroid Bennu, located about 200 million miles away.

The spacecraft is now heading back into Earth’s orbit now and will jettison its cargo over the Dugway Proving Grounds in Utah. If successfully performed, it will release a capsule containing nearly nine ounces of rock and soil believed to be 4.5 billion years old.

OSIRIS-REx will be visible above Salt Lake City at 6:41 a.m. ET and will release its capsule 63,000 miles above Earth about a minute later.

The spacecraft will then fly in tandem for 20 minutes before firing its thrusters to head off onto its next mission to the asteroid Adophis, reaching it in 2029.

NASA will air a live stream of the delivery beginning at 10 a.m. ET and the capsule will enter Earth’s atmosphere around 10:42 a.m. ET. The canister cover will be ejected at 102,000 feet and the drogue parachutes will then be deployed to stabilize the capsule.

Finally, the capsule has a projected lading in the Utah dessert at 10:55 a.m. ET.

If OSIRIS-REx does not make this window, the next attempt would be in 2025 because that’s when it will next orbit Earth.

Nicole Lunning, lead OSIRIS-REx sample curator — who is responsible for taking care of the sample after landing — said it could change what we know about the origins of the solar system.

“This sample is so important because it’s really going to give us a new insight into understanding how our solar system formed and the building blocks of life that may have been contributed to the planets on Earth as well as if we have life elsewhere in our solar system,” she told ABC News.

To be mindful about organic contaminants, the samples will be stored in a hyper clean room built just for the mission in Building 31 at the Johnson Space Center in Houston, Texas, where all the Apollo moon rocks were also processed.

Lunning said that just about any scientist from the broader community who requests a sample will be able to receive one as soon as possible.

“There are hundreds of scientists around the world who are super excited to be able to study these samples to answer new scientific questions that we haven’t been able to answer with the samples that we have on Earth right now,” she said.

This is not the first time NASA has attempted a sample return mission. In 2004, NASA’s Genesis was returning to Earth after collecting solar wind particles when Its drogue parachute did not deploy, and it crashed in Utah. Most of the samples were damaged but some were successfully recovered.

Two years later, another sample return mission, Stardust, landed successfully after collecting samples from Comet Wild 2 and interstellar dust.

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