For the first time in U.S. history, samples from an asteroid in deep space that were captured by NASA fell to Earth and landed in the Utah desert on Sunday, ending a seven-year journey.
The Osiris-Rex spacecraft flew by Earth on Sunday morning, releasing a capsule containing the sample, from nearly 63,000 miles away. Four hours later, the capsule landed on a stretch of military land as the Osiris-Rex spacecraft embarked on a journey to chase after another asteroid.
“We have touchdown!” Mission Recovery Operations announced, immediately repeating the news since the landing occurred three minutes early. Officials later said the orange striped parachute opened four times higher than anticipated — around 20,000 feet (6,100 meters) — basing it on the deceleration rate.
A major concern after touching down was ensuring the contents did not become contaminated.
To NASA’s relief, the capsule did not appear to be breached when it was recovered, and the 4.5-billion-year-old samples were free of contamination.
Two hours after landing, the capsule was in a temporary clean room at the Defense Department’s Utah Text and Training Range after being carried by a helicopter.
“It’s like ‘Wow!’” NASA astronaut Sunita Williams, who was in Utah training for her own space capsule mission, said. “This is just amazing. It can go from the movies, but this is reality.”
The capsule holds roughly a cup of rubble from the asteroid known as Bennu, which is supposedly carbon-rich. Despite how much the capsule can hold, it will not be known for sure until the container is opened in about a day or two.
Some of the material scooped up during the mission three years ago, spilled and floated away after it grabbed too much, jamming the lid.
Japan is the only other country to get samples from an asteroid. In fact, the country has been able to collect about a teaspoon during a pair of asteroid missions.
NASA’s haul on Sunday is the biggest to be retrieved from an object further than the moon.
Osiris-Rex blasted off into space in 2016, marking the beginning of a $1 billion mission.
The spaceship reached Bennu two years later and used a long stick vacuum to material from the small space rock. Once it returned to Earth, the mothership had traveled 4 billion miles.
The samples will be flown Monday morning to a new lab at NASA’s Johnson Space Center in Houston. The building already houses the hundreds of pounds (kilograms) of moon rocks gathered by the Apollo astronauts.
It will take a few weeks to get a precise measurement, said NASA’s lead curator Nicole Lunning.
NASA plans a public show-and-tell in October.
The Associated Press contributed to this report.