After orbiting the near-Earth asteroid Bennu for nearly two years, NASA’s OSIRIS-REx spacecraft successfully touched down and reached out its robotic arm to collect a sample from the asteroid’s surface on Tuesday (21st October). That sample will be returned to Earth in 2023.
To achieve this historic first for NASA, a van-size spacecraft had to briefly touch down its arm in a landing site called Nightingale. The site is the width of a few parking spaces.
The arm reached out to collect a sample, which could be between 2 ounces and 2 kilograms. Then, the spacecraft backed away to safety.
Everything went perfectly based on the data returned by the spacecraft, according to Dante Lauretta, the mission’s principal investigator and a professor at the University of Arizona Lunar and Planetary Laboratory. He said he feels “transcendent” and the team is “exuberant” based on the current data.
“After over a decade of planning, the team is overjoyed at the success of today’s sampling attempt,” Lauretta said in a statement. “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.”
“This was an incredible feat — and today we’ve advanced both science and engineering and our prospects for future missions to study these mysterious ancient storytellers of the solar system,” said Thomas Zurbuchen, associate administrator for NASA’s Science Mission Directorate in a statement. “A piece of primordial rock that has witnessed our solar system’s entire history may now be ready to come home for generations of scientific discovery, and we can’t wait to see what comes next.”
The site itself is nestled within a crater the size of a tennis court and ringed in building-size boulders. Located more than 200 million miles from Earth, Bennu is a boulder-studded asteroid shaped like a spinning top and as tall as the Empire State Building. It’s a “rubble pile” asteroid, which is a grouping of rocks held together by gravity rather than a single object.
The mission — which stands for Origins, Spectral Interpretation, Resource Identification, Security-Regolith Explorer — launched in September 2016. The samples from Bennu could help scientists understand not only more about asteroids that could impact Earth but also about how planets formed and life began.