NASA has released an incredible set of images (top) showing the Bennu asteroid up close.
They were captured by NASA’s OSIRIS-REx spacecraft on Tuesday, October 20, when it successfully touched the asteroid in an effort to gather rock and dust samples from its surface. It’s the first time the space agency has performed such a feat.
The remarkably clear images show the spacecraft’s approach to the surface of Bennu, which is traveling through space at 63,000 mph, more than 200 million miles from Earth. They also show the moment its robotic arm strikes the surface of the asteroid to stir up rock and dust for collection.
“After touchdown, the spacecraft fired its thrusters to back away from Bennu,” NASA said. “Preliminary telemetry shows the spacecraft remains in good health. The spacecraft was traveling at 0.2 mph (10 cm/sec) when it contacted sample site Nightingale and then backed away at 0.9 mph (40 cm/sec).”
The images were captured across a five-minute period, NASA said. The imaging sequence starts at around 82 feet (25 meters) above the surface of the asteroid, and runs through the back-away maneuver, with the last image in the sequence taken at approximately 43 feet (13 meters) in altitude — about 35 seconds after backing away.
Bennu is believed to have formed in the first 10 million years of our solar system’s existence — over 4.5 billion years ago — and so scientists hope that collected samples will tell us more about how it came to be, and even reveal new information about the origins of life.
NASA launched the mission from Cape Canaveral in Florida in 2016 with the aim of making a brief touchdown on Bennu, which it achieved on Tuesday. The asteroid is around 500 meters in length (about the size of the Empire State Building), while the touch-and-go spot where the spacecraft landed is described by NASA as “the size of a small parking lot.”
We won’t know until next week if Tuesday’s tricky maneuver, in which the spacecraft’s robotic arm tried to grab at least 60 grams worth of material from the asteroid’s surface, was a success.
If it was, the sample will be brought to Earth for scientific analysis. However, if OSIRIS-REx failed to collect a sufficient amount of material, a second collection attempt will take place in January 2021.
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