A NASA spacecraft landed a sample capsule from asteroid Bennu in a U.S. desert on Sunday after a seven-year, 6-billion-kilometer journey, marking the world's third asteroid sample retrieval following Japan's Hayabusa and Hayabusa2 missions.
The capsule, weighing 50 kilograms and measuring about 80 centimeters in diameter, carried rock samples that may hold clues to the early days of the solar system. It was released from the OSIRIS-REx spacecraft on the first U.S. mission to carry samples from an asteroid back to Earth.
The National Aeronautics and Space Administration said curation scientists at a laboratory in Houston, Texas, will disassemble the canister, extract and weigh the sample, create an inventory of the rocks and dust, and distribute pieces of the asteroid to scientists worldwide, including those in Japan and Canada.
Japan's space agency previously shared with the U.S. counterpart some of the material retrieved from asteroid Ryugu by its Hayabusa2 explorer to elucidate the history of planetary formation and the origins of life.
Experts pointed out that it is essential to compare samples from Ryugu and Bennu in delving deeper into the secrets of the solar system because a significant difference between the two could mean there were diverse water carriers for a primordial Earth lurking in space.
Yuichi Tsuda, who led the Hayabusa2 mission at the Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency, offered his congratulations on X, formerly called Twitter, calling the achievement "another monumental chapter in history."
The Japanese government also congratulated NASA's achievement. "We hope it will lead to further deepening of Japan-U.S. cooperation in the field of space," its top spokesman, Chief Cabinet Secretary Hirokazu Matsuno, said at a press conference in Tokyo.
The OSIRIS-REx spacecraft launched in 2016 arrived at Bennu in 2018 and collected an estimated 250 grams of rock samples from the asteroid in 2020. After sending the sample capsule to Earth, the spacecraft set off for its next asteroid mission.
Hayabusa2, which is smaller than the OSIRIS-REx craft, brought back around 5.4 grams of material from the Ryugu asteroid to Earth in December 2020.
Bennu, with a diameter of roughly 500 meters, orbits close to Earth. Like Ryugu, it is believed to harbor ancient traces of water and organic compounds. Researchers believe such asteroids might have once collided with ancient Earth, potentially delivering the fundamental components for oceans and life.
"Not to mention, Bennu is a potentially hazardous asteroid, and what we learn from the sample will help us better understand the types of asteroids that could come our way," NASA Administrator Bill Nelson said.