Asteroids indeed hold various secrets. While new asteroids that could pass near Earth are discovered from time to time (some more dangerous than others), these large solid masses of rock and metal are true remnants of the universe itself that can reveal details about it that were previously unknown to us.
Now, NASA has scored another point in the history of space science by successfully collecting, via parachute, the largest sample ever taken from the surface of an asteroid. The robotic spacecraft responsible for collecting this rock sample was OSIRIS-REx, which was sent to the 500-meter-diameter asteroid Bennu years ago.
As reported by Reuters, the OSIRIS-REx spacecraft released the sample capsule as it passed by Earth at a distance of 107,826 kilometers. It landed in a designated area west of Salt Lake City, a vast U.S. Army training and testing range located in Utah.
With this achievement, NASA concludes a joint mission spanning six years between the U.S. space agency and the University of Arizona. OSIRIS-REx was launched in September 2016 and arrived at Bennu in 2018. After spending two years orbiting the asteroid, the spacecraft was able to get close enough to collect a sample of loose surface material using its robotic arm on October 20, 2020.
This marks the third asteroid sample, as well as the largest, to be returned to Earth for analysis, following two similar missions by the Japanese space agency that concluded in 2010 and 2020.
Indeed, like other asteroids, Bennu is a genuine relic of the early Solar System. Since its chemistry and mineralogy have hardly changed since its formation about 4.5 billion years ago, this astronomical object could hold valuable clues about the origins and development of rocky planets like Earth.