NASA is celebrating tonight after its OSIRIS-REx spacecraft successfully touched the Bennu asteroid in a bid to collect rock and dust samples from its surface. It’s the first time for the space agency to perform such a feat.
Hurtling through space more than 200 million miles from Earth, the tricky “touch and go” maneuver involved the spacecraft making brief contact with the asteroid to grab at least 60 grams worth of material.
If the team determines the collection process a success, the next step is to bring the sample to Earth for scientific analysis. If the spacecraft failed to collect a sufficient amount of material, a second attempt will take place in January 2021. We should know the result next week.
Because Bennu is believed to have formed in the first 10 million years of our solar system’s existence — over 4.5 billion years ago — scientists hope that collected samples could unlock the mysteries about how it came to be, and even tell us more about the origins of life.
At 500 meters in length (about the size of the Empire State Building) and traveling at a speed of 63,000 mph while also rotating, the mission to take a spacecraft to the surface of Bennu has been a massive challenge for NASA, which launched the mission from Cape Canaveral in Florida in 2016.
Following a series of maneuvers that thrust the spacecraft out of orbit around Bennu, it extended its robotic arm while descending about half a mile (805 meters) toward the asteroid’s surface.
Four hours later, at an altitude of around 410 feet (125 meters), the spacecraft executed the first of two maneuvers that allowed it to precisely target the sample collection site, known as Nightingale.
Ten minutes after that, the spacecraft performed the second maneuver to slow its descent and match the asteroid’s rotation at the time of contact.
“It then continued a treacherous, 11-minute coast past a boulder the size of a two-story building, nicknamed ‘Mount Doom,’ to touch down in a clear spot in a crater on Bennu’s northern hemisphere,” NASA said. “The size of a small parking lot, the Nightingale site is one of the few relatively clear spots on this unexpectedly boulder-covered space rock.”
As the robotic arm made contact with the surface it fired a burst of nitrogen gas to stir up dust and pebbles, some of which will hopefully have been captured by the probe. Following the collection attempt, OSIRIS-REx fired its thrusters and safely moved away from the surface.”
Thomas Zurbuchen, associate administrator for NASA’s Science Mission Directorate, described Tuesday’s touch-and-go mission as “an incredible feat,” adding, “Today we’ve advanced both science and engineering and our prospects for future missions to study these mysterious ancient storytellers of the solar system. A piece of primordial rock that has witnessed our solar system’s entire history may now be ready to come home for generations of scientific discovery, and we can’t wait to see what comes next.”
Any sample collected by NASA’s OSIRIS-REx spacecraft is expected to arrive on Earth in 2023.
In a similar effort, Japan’s space agency, which last year collected the first-ever subsurface samples from an asteroid around 200 million miles away, should see the material arrive back on Earth in December 2020.
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