It wasn’t quite the moon landing, but this touchdown was historic for NASA. NASA made space history when its OSIRIS-REx spacecraft successfully touched down on the near-Earth asteroid Bennu. The spacecraft was able to reach out with its robotic arm to collect a sample from the asteroid’s surface on Tuesday.
OSIRIS-REx—which stands for Origins, Spectral Interpretation, Resource Identification, Security-Regolith Explorer—launched in September 2016.
Dante Lauretta, the mission’s principal investigator and a professor at the University of Arizona Lunar and Planetary Laboratory, was ecstatic over the touchdown: “After over a decade of planning, the team is overjoyed at the success of today’s sampling attempt…Even though we have some work ahead of us to determine the outcome of the event—the successful contact, the TAGSAM gas firing, and back-away from Bennu are major accomplishments for the team. I look forward to analyzing the data to determine the mass of sample collected.”
The landing took a total of 4.5 hours, but only touched down on the surface for 16 seconds. The spacecraft then fired a pressurized nitrogen bottle onto the asteroid and used the thrust generated from the gas to lift off Bennu’s surface.
While still awaiting confirmation of the sample collection, NASA hopes the extraction went off without any issues. The spacecraft’s collector head is located on an 11-foot-long robotic sampling arm—think an air filter in an older model car—perfect for collecting particulates. As a redundancy, the arm included small discs, which can collect dust like sticky pads.
Both the asteroid and the spacecraft are 207 million miles from Earth, causing a communication delay of about 18.5 minutes between mission control and the spacecraft.
Because of this delay, the OSIRIS-REx had to detect hazards on its own and would delay its own mission if any obstacles got in the way of sample collection. Based on multiple simulations, the team estimated there was less than a 6% chance the spacecraft would abort the mission.
The main mission of the spacecraft was the Touch-and-Go sample collection event, or TAG. The landing was no easy easy feat—the landing site is the width of a few parking spaces. Dubbed “Nightingale”, the van-sized spacecraft was able to briefly touch down its arm and collect the samples. The samples could be anywhere between 2 ounces and 2 kilograms.
After the touchdown, NASA scientists quickly got to work analyzing the data being sent back by the spacecraft. The samples from Bennu will help scientists understand how planets formed and life began.
On October 21, the team will be able to determine whether the sample collection was successful. By Saturday, the team estimates they will have a mass measurement. And by October 30, NASA will be able to confirm if the spacecraft collected enough of a sample, or if it needs to attempt a second sample collection in January at another landing site called Osprey.
If everything goes according to plan, OSIRIS-REx and its precious cargo will begin its journey back to Earth next year and arrive in 2023.
That’s one small reach for a robotic arm, one giant leap for scientific research.
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