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Asteroid sample landing in Utah may unlock answers regarding life on Earth

Posted at 6:02 PM, Jul 28, 2023

TOOELE COUNTY, Utah — Scientists have long studied how life on Earth began, but a NASA mission to capture a sample of an asteroid may unlock some answers — and Dugway Proving Ground in Utah will play a key role in this discovery.

OSIRIS-REx is the NASA mission that captured the sample to study back here on Earth.

"We are looking for where are the origins of life coming from? So we are built of amino acids," explained OSIRIS-REx ground recovery leader Richard Witherspoon. "We are also built of water and where did those amino acids and water come from? And one of the theories is that it came in from asteroids."

After a four-year mission, NASA landed on the asteroid Benue — the most dangerous rock in the solar system — and collected the sample, according to principal investigator Dante Lauretta.

Now scheduled to return to Earth in September, a capsule containing the sample will enter the atmosphere over California on its way to Utah.

"It will be at the Nevada-Utah border and a drug chute will come out then a main parachute and it is targeted and land in the center of the Utah test and training range," said OSIRIS-REx deputy project manager Mike Moreau.

Why Utah?

It's because it offers a "huge open space where it can come in safely without harm to the public or personnel on the ground," according to Utah Test and Training Range officer Lindsay Carl.

Even now, to recover the capsule as safely as possible, personnel on the proving grounds are training on an exact replica so they can preserve the valuable material the actual capsule contains.

Once it's prepared at a "clean room" in Utah, the sample will be flown to Johnson Space Center in Houston, where scientists from around the country — and the world — will analyze it to answer questions regarding the solar system and the beginnings of human life.

"To know that the capsule is coming back and we're going to actually touch something that went to space and came back is incredible," said Witherspoon. "It's like the anticipation you have as a child for when Christmas is coming up—times ten."