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A canister of asteroid samples for NASA to study lands safely in Utah

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

A NASA spacecraft has returned to Earth carrying about eight ounces of rock and dust, enough to fill a cup. And scientists are thrilled because these black rocks are pieces of an asteroid. They've set up a laboratory just to study this stuff, and NPR's Nell Greenfieldboyce reports that this week, scientists begin to do just that.

NELL GREENFIELDBOYCE, BYLINE: These rocks are older than the Earth. They're relics from the early solar system when planets were forming. NASA's OSIRIS-REx spacecraft spent seven years traveling over a billion miles through space to get these asteroid rocks. Yesterday morning, it shot them towards home in a sample return capsule.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: EDL milestone - we have confirmed parachute deployment.

GREENFIELDBOYCE: This was the moment that Dante Lauretta says he let out all the emotions he'd been holding in. He's a University of Arizona scientist who leads this NASA mission. It's consumed nearly two decades of his life. He knew the parachute would keep the capsule and its precious cargo from crashing and being destroyed.

DANTE LAURETTA: You know, tears were streaming down my eyes. I was like, OK, that's the only thing I needed to hear. From this point on, we know what to do. We're safe. We're home. We did it.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: Touchdown. I repeat, EDL - SRC has touched down.

GREENFIELDBOYCE: After the capsule landed, Lauretta helicoptered over a desert out to where it was sitting on the ground at a military range in Utah. It looked like a mini-UFO, charred and blackened from its fiery trip through the atmosphere.

LAURETTA: It was like seeing an old friend that you hadn't seen for a long time.

GREENFIELDBOYCE: He says he wished he could give it a hug. He says there's no danger that there's any alien life inside.

LAURETTA: In fact, we're more worried about Earth's biology contaminating the sample.

GREENFIELDBOYCE: Because one of the key science goals is to see if carbon-rich asteroids might have delivered some of the chemical ingredients that led to life on Earth. To keep the sample pristine, the canister full of rocks will only be opened inside a special lab built to study them at NASA's Johnson Space Center in Houston. Lauretta says the plan is to start analyzing some of the material on Tuesday.

LAURETTA: So I have to be patient, and I'm really exercising patience. I understand we need to go methodically, systematically, through the hardware. We have a very well-defined procedure.

GREENFIELDBOYCE: He says, unlike a kid at Christmas, he can't just give the package a shake to get a sense of what treasure might be hidden inside.

Nell Greenfieldboyce, NPR News.

(SOUNDBITE OF DEREK FIECHTER AND BRANDON FIECHTER'S "INTO THE UNKNOWN") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Nell Greenfieldboyce is a NPR science correspondent.

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