A NASA space mission led by the University of Arizona touched asteroid Bennu 200 million miles from Earth and plucked a surface sample on Oct. 20, 2020.
A NASA space mission led by the University of Arizona successfully touched the surface of an asteroid 200 million miles from Earth Tuesday, and initial analysis indicates the bus-size spacecraft was able to pluck a sample from the rocky surface.
The OSIRIS-REx team won’t know how much material for a few days. But they expressed optimism in a news conference Wednesday, after the spacecraft performed as planned.
“The sampling went really good, as good as we imagined it could,” said Dante Lauretta, a UA professor of planetary science and the mission’s principal investigator.
Images taken during descent show the craft’s 11-inch sampling arm crush and shatter an approximately 8-inch rock on contact. Lauretta said he is hopeful the sampling filter, which resembles the carburetor on an ’57 Chevy, captured the debris cloud.
The craft spent less than 20 seconds in contact with the surface before firing its thrusters, backing up and heading a safe distance away.
Sandra Freund, OSIRIS-REx mission operations manager at Lockheed Martin Space in Littleton, Colorado, said scientists and engineers will begin examining on Thursday images taken inside the sampler head to estimate the sample size. The goal is to bring back to Earth at least two ounces and as much as four pounds of material.
Tuesday marked the first attempt OSIRIS-REx made to retrieve a sample from an asteroid on the outer reaches of the solar system named Bennu. If successful, this will be NASA’s largest sample from a celestial body since the Apollo moon landings of the late 1960s and early 1970s.
NASA officials likened the OSIRIS-REx mission to driving a 15-passenger van in from deep space onto a rotating object. The target is no bigger than two parking spots.
Scientists and engineers were unsure how the spacecraft would react on the touch-and-go maneuver, even though they have spent years planning and testing. There was a small chance the robotic spacecraft could have detected rocky hazards and would “wave off” the landing. It was also possible that OSIRIS-REx wouldn’t be filter up enough sample material.
Before Tuesday, OSIRIS-REx had spent nearly two years orbiting and evaluating Bennu, a lump of rock and organic material. Like other asteroids, Bennu orbits the sun and is much smaller than a planet. Bennu is about as tall as the Empire State Building and about a third of a mile across.
Scientists and engineers had to make major adjustments to the navigation system after they encountered a rockier surface than anticipated. They had to find a landing site free of large rocks, which could damage the spacecraft or cause it to tip over. They settled on a tennis-court size crater, which they named Nightingale Crater.
Once the team knows how much sample was collected on the first try, NASA will determine in late October whether to try for another sample. OSIRIS-REx can make two more attempts. The craft has three pressurized nitrogen bottles. One bottle is needed for each sample attempt. As the spacecraft touches down, it fires a nitrogen bottle and the gas stirs up the surface material, catching it in the filter.
The next sampling attempt, if needed, would happen in January.
In March, OSIRIS-REx will begin its 2½-year journey back to Earth.
The spacecraft is expected to arrive near Earth in late September 2023 where it will jettison a capsule containing a sample that will land in the Utah desert. The spacecraft won’t be able to return because it lacks landing gear, so OSIRIS-REx will continue on into an orbit around the sun.
NASA will distribute contents to various labs around the world for study, including the University of Arizona, NASA and Japan, which is a partner in the mission.
While the sample still needs to get to Earth, NASA Administrator Jim Bridenstine lauded the OSIRIS-REx team’s work so far and called the sampling maneuver a “stunning achievement.”
“You guys made not just the United States of America proud. You made humanity proud,” he told them.
About the mission
Name: OSIRIS-REx, short for Origins, Spectral Interpretation, Resource Identification, Security, Regolith Explorer.
Goal: Send an unmanned spacecraft to collect and return a sample to Earth. The object’s composition could shed more light on the origins of the solar system.
Cost: $1 billion.
Significance: If successful, OSIRIS-REx will be the first U.S. mission to bring an asteroid sample back to Earth. Asteroids are made of rock or metal, orbit the sun and are much smaller than planets.
Connection to Arizona: University of Arizona is leading the mission, and Dante Lauretta, a UA professor of planetary science is the mission’s principal investigator. One of the science instruments on board called the OSIRIS-REx Thermal Emission Spectrometer, or OTES, was built at Arizona State University. The instrument analyzes minerals and compounds on the asteroid’s surface and was designed by a team led by ASU Professor Phil Christensen.
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