A sample of debris from the asteroid Bennu, collected by the NASA probe “Osiris-Rex” and dropped above Earth, has landed in the US state of Utah. Protected by a heat shield and slowed down by parachutes, the capsule with the sample touched down in the desert on Sunday, as live images from the US space agency NASA showed.

The NASA scientists in the control center responded with clapping and cheering as the capsule, weighing about 46 kilograms and measuring about 81 centimeters in diameter, touched down on Earth three minutes earlier than planned. “Osiris-Rex” had dropped the capsule, which looks like a kind of salad bowl with a high lid, a few hours earlier at an altitude of around 102,000 kilometers above Earth.

According to NASA estimates, the capsule contains around 250 grams of rubble that was collected from the celestial body around three years ago. It will now be taken for examinations in NASA laboratories in the US state of Texas – where around 200 scientists will then work on the sample using 60 different examination methods.

If the contents of the capsule turn out as NASA had hoped, it would be the first sample of an asteroid successfully brought to Earth in the history of the US space agency – and probably the largest such sample ever taken. In 2005, the Japanese space probe “Hayabusa” landed on an asteroid. In 2010, it brought the first soil samples ever collected from such a celestial body to Earth. There have been other flights to asteroids, but no other probe has yet brought material back to Earth.

“Osiris Rex” (the abbreviation stands for: Origins, Spectral Interpretation, Resource Identification, Security-Regolith Explorer) was launched from the Cape Canaveral spaceport in September 2016 and arrived at Bennu around two years later. In October 2020, the probe took a sample from the asteroid in a complicated maneuver lasting several hours – the first US missile in space history.

A mishap also occurred: the lid of the collecting container was slightly pried open by larger stones, allowing parts of the sample to escape. However, the NASA scientists still assume that there is enough material in the collecting container.

The deep black Bennu, named after an ancient Egyptian deity, has a diameter of around 550 meters and could come quite close to Earth in a good 150 years. Even though the risk of impact is very low, NASA counts Bennu as one of the most dangerous asteroids currently known – and therefore wants to research it in detail. The scientists also hope that the “Osiris Rex” mission, which costs around a billion dollars, will provide insights into the formation of the solar system more than 4.5 billion years ago, because such asteroids are remnants of it.

The “Osiris-Rex” probe, which is approximately six meters long and weighs 2,100 kilograms, set off for the next asteroid, Apophis, immediately after it was released. According to calculations, the asteroid with a diameter of around 370 meters will fly past Earth at a distance of around 32,000 kilometers in 2029 and could therefore be studied up close for the first time. The mission had already been extended by at least nine years – and now has a new name: “Osiris Apex”.