Physicist Jennifer Inman has observed the aerodynamics of many spacecraft, including NASA’s space shuttles, as they launched and landed. But on 24 September she had the chance to study a rarity: the return of a capsule carrying samples from a distant world.

That container was NASA’s OSIRIS-REx capsule, bearing fragments of a far-off asteroid. Before landing in Utah, it carved a small but blazing path in the skies of the western United States — becoming one of the fastest human-made objects to ever enter the atmosphere.

Inman and her team at NASA’s Langley Research Center in Hampton, Virginia, were among many researchers who positioned aeroplanes, balloons, seismometers and other equipment along the trajectory. All hoped to capture the capsule’s faster-than-sound passage, which offered the chance to collect data on phenomena that occur when meteors slam into the atmosphere. “It’s very rare to have something where we know when it’s going to be, where it’s going to be, and what it’s made of,” Inman says.

“This is the most-instrumented hypersonic re-entry in history,” adds Elizabeth Silber, a physicist at Sandia National Laboratories in Albuquerque, New Mexico, who coordinated most of the teams. Results are still being analysed, but it’s already clear that the researchers have captured a wealth of data, from a quiet but distinctive double sonic boom to an infrasound signal that might have slammed off the ground and bounced upwards as the capsule re-entered.

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