Updated: 12:23 p.m.
After traveling billions of miles for seven years to touch an asteroid and bring a sample home, NASA's Osiris-REx mission has finally delivered a precious sample to Earth.
Mission members cheered and clapped as they learned the sample canister had successfully touched down around 10:52 a.m. Eastern in a Utah desert after a nail-biting descent through the atmosphere.
Workers tracked the capsule as it parachuted down toward its landing zone, performed a safety assessment and then whisked it off, suspended under a helicopter, to a laboratory clean room.
In the capsule should be roughly a coffee mug's worth of rock and other material collected from the asteroid Bennu, which at the time was more than 200 million miles away.
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If found to be intact, that single serving of space rock will mark the biggest haul of extraterrestrial material brought back by any nation on Earth since the Apollo astronauts carried pieces of the moon home, and the culmination of NASA's first attempt to bring samples of an asteroid back to Earth.
Asteroids represent the primordial building material from our early Solar System, untainted by planetary processes or by the presence of living things. As such, they could offer scientists a window into the kind of chemistry that could have led to life on our planet.
But for that to happen, that canister had to make the final leg of its journey alone, bearing temperatures hotter than lava. The Osiris-REx spacecraft released the capsule as it flew within 63,000 miles of the planet. The capsule then entered the atmosphere at a screaming 36 times the speed of sound before slowing down enough to land in Utah's Great Salt Lake Desert.
After retrieving it, team members will fly the canister to NASA's Johnson Space Center in Houston, Texas, which houses the repository for outer space samples like moon rocks. On Tuesday, if all goes well, they'll open the canister inside a special lab.
After that, the plan is to store part of the sample so that future generations of scientists can also study these samples with more advanced tools — just as scientists today are still studying moon rocks that Apollo astronauts brought back so many decades ago.
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