NASA’s OSIRIS-REx spacecraft has completed the most critical phase of its mission: booping an asteroid. The probe has been orbiting the asteroid Bennu for almost two years, but yesterday it descended to the surface to scoop up a few grams of precious primordial material for eventual return to Earth.
According to the NASA team, the Origins, Spectral Interpretation, Resource Identification, Security, Regolith Explorer (OSIRIS-REx) spacecraft fired its thrusters at 1:50PM EDT to drop out of orbit. As it floated toward the unexpectedly craggy surface on its pre-programmed maneuver, the robot extended its sampling arm. The low gravity of Bennu allowed the craft to tap the surface at a carefully chosen location known as Nightingale. On the way, the spacecraft had to execute two precise burns to line up with the sampling site and avoid running into any rocks like the house-sized boulder nicknamed Mount Doom.
Once OSIRIS-REx reached the surface, it used a puff of nitrogen to blow material into the sample container. The mission was designed to collect as much as 60 grams of dust and pebbles from the asteroid, but NASA doesn’t know how much the probe was able to scoop up. All we can say is that the mechanism worked perfectly after coming in contact with Bennu. Following sample acquisition, OSIRIS-REx fired its thrusters to head back into a safe distance.
NASA will now work on downloading the visual data captured by OSIRIS-REx during the touch and go (TAG) maneuver (you can see some early photos below). By comparing images of Nightingale from before and after the operation, the team should be able to estimate how much material it collected. In the coming days, NASA will also analyze the spacecraft’s moment of inertia, which could indicate how much the mass changed after sample acquisition.
Once the team is confident OSIRIS-REx has sufficient material, they will order the robot to load the sample into the Sample Return Capsule (SRC) for its trip back to Earth. In the event there isn’t enough asteroid gravel in the container, OSIRIS-REx can make one more attempt in January. In either case, the spacecraft will begin its trip back to Earth in March 2021. The SRC is scheduled to reach Earth in September 2023.
How it started: How it’s going: pic.twitter.com/xT7hLo7SCl
— NASA’s OSIRIS-REx (@OSIRISREx) October 21, 2020
NASA chose Bennu because it has undergone very little geological change since its formation billions of years ago. All previous asteroid samples scientists have analyzed took a trip through Earth’s atmosphere, the heat of which altered their composition. Studying this pristine material from the early solar system could shed light on the past and future or our planet.
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