NASA’s Osiris-Rex capsule will return to Earth on Sunday to bring back stardust from the distant asteroid Bennu. The event marked a milestone in NASA’s quest to unearth the secrets of humanity’s cosmic origins.

The touchdown location for the capsule was Utah’s West Desert. The destination is chosen owing to its remote and sparsely populated terrain. The descending capsule carries dust collected from the asteroid Bennu, a mountain-sized space rock that has been the focus of NASA’s Osiris-Rex mission.

Experts anticipate the Osiris-Rex capsule to create a fireball in the sky.

With a heat shield designed to withstand temperatures akin to those on the surface of the Sun, the capsule is equipped to endure the intense heat generated during re-entry. A series of parachutes are deployed to slow down its descent, ensuring a safe touchdown.

The mission, spearheaded by Principal Investigator Professor Dante Lauretta, aims to collect samples to help unlock secrets about the formation of the Solar System and life on Earth. The materials collected from Bennu are a time capsule that holds clues to the early days of the Solar System. They might even provide insights into the formation of life on Earth, according to Professor Lauretta.

One primary objective is to investigate the source of the water that fills oceans, as well as the origin of the atmospheric air. These fundamental questions are keys to comprehending the unique conditions that allowed life to flourish on the planet.

Scientists are particularly intrigued by the examination of Bennu’s organic molecules. These molecules are considered to hold clues about the genesis of life on Earth.

One leading theory, which the Osiris-Rex mission bolsters, posits that key components necessary for Earth’s habitability and the development of life came from asteroid impacts. These building blocks arrived on the planet in a torrential rain of asteroids, potentially similar to Bennu. These cosmic visitors brought with them the raw materials that shaped Earth’s geology, chemistry, and ultimately, its suitability for life.

In the coming months, researchers will conduct an analysis of the stardust from Bennu. Advanced laboratory techniques will be employed to scrutinise the samples at a microscopic level.

The successful re-entry of the Osiris-Rex capsule marked the culmination of years of meticulous planning and precise execution. Engineers completed their final adjustments to the spacecraft’s trajectory, ensuring a safe return.

The next critical step is the “go, no-go” decision for its release towards Earth this weekend. This decision will be made after thorough evaluation and coordination between mission control and the experts on the ground, ensuring that all systems are primed for the capsule’s descent and recovery.

The quest to obtain fragments of Bennu began in 2016 when NASA launched the Osiris-Rex probe towards this enigmatic celestial object, which measures 500 metres (1,640 feet) in width. The spacecraft journeyed through the depths of space for two years before arriving at Bennu’s vicinity.

Upon arrival, an additional two years were spent mapping Bennu’s surface. The mission team faced the daunting task of identifying a suitable location for collecting a soil sample, one that would yield insights into the asteroid’s distant past.

Dr Sir Brian May played a key role in this site selection process. His expertise contributed to pinpointing the optimal site for the sample collection.