NASA is celebrating tonight after its OSIRIS-REx spacecraft successfully touched the Bennu asteroid to collect rock and dust samples from its surface. It is the first time that the space agency has achieved such an achievement.
The difficult “touch and go” maneuver sped through space more than 200 million miles from Earth and involved brief contact with the asteroid to pick up at least 60 grams of material.
If the team determines that the collection process is successful, the next step is to bring the sample back to earth for scientific analysis. If the spaceship does not collect enough material, a second attempt will take place in January 2021. We should know the result next week.
Since 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 will solve the mystery of its formation and even tell us more about the origins of can live.
With a length of 500 meters (about the size of the Empire State Building) and a speed of 63,000 miles per hour with simultaneous rotation, the mission to bring a spaceship to the surface of Bennu was a major challenge for NASA, which launched the mission from Cape Canaveral, Florida in 2016.
After a series of maneuvers that pushed the spaceship out of orbit around Bennu, it extended its robotic arm and descended about 805 meters toward the surface of the asteroid.
Four hours later, at a height of 125 meters, the spaceship carried out the first of two maneuvers that allowed it to aim precisely at the sample collection point known as the nightingale.
Ten minutes later, the spaceship performed the second maneuver to slow the descent and adjust the rotation of the asteroid at the time of contact.
"Then we went on a treacherous 11-minute shoreline past a boulder the size of a two-story building nicknamed" Mount Doom "to land in a vacant spot in a crater on Bennu's northern hemisphere," NASA said. "The Nightingale site is the size of a small parking lot and one of the few relatively clear spots on this unexpectedly boulder-covered space rock."
When the robotic arm made contact with the surface, it fired a blast of nitrogen gas to stir up dust and pebbles, some of which, hopefully, were caught by the probe. After the collective attempt, OSIRIS-REx fired its engines and safely removed from the surface. "
Thomas Zurbuchen, Assistant Administrator of NASA's Directorate of Science Missions, described Tuesday's Touch and Go mission as “an incredible achievement,” adding, “Today we have advanced both science and technology and our prospects for future missions, to study those mysterious ancient storytellers of the solar system. A chunk of primeval rock that has witnessed the entire history of our solar system might now be ready to come home for generations of scientific discovery, and we can't wait to see what comes next. "
Every sample collected by NASA's OSIRIS-REx spacecraft is expected to arrive on Earth in 2023.
Similarly, Japan's space agency, which last year collected the first underground samples from an asteroid about 200 million miles away, should bring the material back to Earth in December 2020.