NASA spacecraft lands on asteroid Bennu, grabs sample

Pablo Tucker
October 22, 2020

Launched atop an Atlas/Centaur booster from Space Launch Complex 41 at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station in Florida on September 8, 2016 at 7:05 pm EDT, the robotic OSIRIS-REx probe spent four years matching orbits to rendezvous with Bennu before making a detailed survey of the body's surface to find a safe area of scientific interest.

In a similar effort, Japan's space agency, which a year ago collected the first-ever subsurface samples from an asteroid around 200 million miles away, should see the material arrive back on Earth in December 2020.

The original mission called for a landing "zone" about 150% larger than Nightingale, at 82 feet, but that changed because Bennu was more rocky than expected. The site is the width of a few parking spaces.

"Everything went just exactly flawless", Dante Lauretta, OSIRIS-REx principal investigator from the University of Arizona, Tucson, said on a NASA live feed from Lockheed's mission support building.

This mosaic image of the asteroid Bennu consisted of 12 PolyCam images collected on December 2, 2018 by the OSIRIS-REx spacecraft at a range of 24 km (15 miles).

On Tuesday night, the OSIRIS-REx team will go through the data being sent back by the spacecraft.

Otherwise, they will prepare for another attempt in January, according to NASA.

NASA is expected to hold a news conference Wednesday to share early images from the maneuver, which will determine if the sampling attempt was successful.

Thomas Zurbuchen, associate administrator for NASA's Science Mission Directorate, said this was "an incredible feat".

Not all samples will be analysed immediately, like those brought back from the Moon by the Apollo astronauts, which NASA is still opening up 50 years later.

The Lockheed Martin-built van-sized spacecraft successfully reached a tennis court-sized crater named Nightingale.

"We've not visited that many asteroids with spacecraft".

The main event of the mission is the Touch-and-Go sample collection event, or TAG, that occurred today.

Bennu, a black pile of rubble that is about 0.3 miles wide and 180 million miles from Earth, could come dangerously close to our planet next century, although the chances of impact are very small. Analyzing the atomic level of samples from Bennu could help scientists better understand the role that asteroids played in bringing water to Earth and infusing it with prebiotics that provided the building blocks for life.

"Asteroids are like time capsules floating in space that can provide fossil recordings of the birth of our solar system", NASA's Director of Planetary Science, Lori Clas, told Al Jazeera. Not only did it have to be done automatically, since the asteroid is so far away that it takes more than 18 minutes for radio signals to travel there from Earth, but the large number of jagged boulders that needed to be dodged meant it couldn't be done by the type of radar navigation conventionally used for such landings.

Before the sample was collected, the OSIRIS-REx spacecraft performed its Checkpoint maneuver. The spacecraft adjusted its position and speed, and began descending toward the surface of the asteroid.

OSIRIS-Rex then slowed its descent to target a path so it coincided with the rotation of the planet during contact. Its solar panels were attached to a Y-wing structure on top of the spacecraft to protect them.

At last, OSIRIS-REx touched down for less than 16 seconds.

As the robotic arm made contact with the surface it fired a burst of nitrogen gas to stir up dust and pebbles, some of which will hopefully have been captured by the probe.

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