Capsule with NASA's first asteroid sample heads for Utah touchdown
A NASA capsule carrying the largest soil sample ever collected from an asteroid is due to return to Earth on Sunday, expected to streak through the atmosphere and parachute into the Utah desert to deliver its celestial specimen to scientists.
The robotic spacecraft OSIRIS-REx is scheduled to release the gumdrop-shaped capsule, transporting about a cup of gravelly asteroid material, at 6:42 a.m. EDT (1042 GMT) for a final descent to Earth, climaxing a seven-year voyage.
Plans call for the capsule to touch down a little more than four hours later within a 650-sq-km landing zone west of Salt Lake City on the U.S. military's vast Utah Test and Training Range.
Success of the mission, a joint effort between NASA and the University of Arizona, would mark the third asteroid sample, and by far the biggest, ever returned to Earth for analysis, following two similar missions by Japan's space agency ending in 2010 and 2020.
OSIRIS-REx collected its specimen from Bennu, a small, carbon-rich asteroid discovered in 1999 and classified as a "near-Earth object" because it passes relatively close to our planet every six years, though the odds of an impact are considered remote.