NASA to skim the surface of an asteroid and bring a sample home

The spacecraft is set to kiss the surface of astroid Bennu at 6:12 p.m. ET.

NASA is set to touch an asteroid, break off a sample, and bring it back to Earth for the first time during a history-making mission that culminates on Tuesday.

The OSIRIS-REx spacecraft — an acronym for Origins, Spectral Interpretation, Resource Identification and Security-Regolith Explorer — is set to attempt a touch-and-go sample collection on the asteroid Bennu starting Tuesday afternoon.

“It feels like something really amazing is about to happen,” Thomas Zurbuchen, the associate administrator of NASA’s Science Mission Directorate, said at a news conference Monday.

“This is a historic first mission for NASA, returning an asteroid sample, and it is hard. It is hard even without COVID, but COVID made it even harder,” he added, lauding the team effort that went into Tuesday’s big event.

PHOTO: This Aug. 11, 2020, photo shows the sampling arm of the OSIRIS-REx spacecraft during a rehearsal for an approach to the "Nightingale" sample site on the surface of the asteroid Bennu.

This Aug. 11, 2020, photo shows the sampling arm of the OSIRIS-REx spacecraft during a rehearsal for an approach to the “Nightingale” sample site on the surface of the asteroid Bennu.

The spacecraft launched four years ago, has been orbiting Bennu for two years. On Tuesday it will briefly touch its surface via a robotic arm at 6:12 p.m. ET for less than a minute to grab a sample.

The spacecraft is then expected to remain in Bennu’s orbit until 2021, when it will begin its journey home. It’s expected to land back on Earth with the sample in 2023.

Starting at just before 2 p.m. ET Tuesday, the Osiris-REx will begin its set of maneuvers to slowly descend to the Nightingale landing spot on the surface of the asteroid, which is expected to take over four hours. NASA will broadcast a stream of animations displaying the sample collection activities in real time starting at 1:20 p.m. ET on its website.

Starting at 5 p.m. ET, there will be also be a live broadcast from Lockheed Martin of the Osiris-REx’s descent to the surface and sample collection attempt. This livestream can also be watched on NASA’s website.

If successful, this will be the first time NASA has grabbed a piece of an asteroid in space.

The spacecraft and asteroid are some 207 million miles from Earth during the touch-and-go mission, so it takes approximately 18.5 minutes for signals to travel from Earth to the spacecraft — meaning the “live” broadcasts