Tuesday, 15 June, 2021

Watch "Live" as NASA’s OSIRIS-REx Nabs an Asteroid Sample

This undated image made available by NASA shows the asteroid Bennu from the OSIRIS-REx spacecraft. After almost two years circling the ancient asteroid OSIRIS-REx will attempt to descend to the treacherous boulder-packed surface and snatch a handful NASA spacecraft Osiris Rex lands on asteroid Bennu on mission to collect dust | Science
Sandy Nunez | 22 November, 2020, 02:59

A NASA spacecraft on Tuesday conducted the US space agency's first sample collection from an asteroid as part of seven-year-long voyage.

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

The mission, if it goes successfully, will be the first USA mission to carry samples from an asteroid back to Earth and the largest sample returned from space since the Apollo era, according to the National Aeronautics and Space Administration.

From here, OSIRIS-Rex will pull away from the asteroid, redeploy its solar panels as well as a high-gain antenna to transmit initial images and data from the operation then begin a almost three year long trek back to Earth where the collection capsule is expected to land at the Utah Test and Training Range in 2023.

The OSIRIS-REx spacecraft arrived above Bennu in December 2018 after traveling through space for over two years, covering more than 2 billion kilometers. The time lag did not allow for live command of the flight, so OSIRIS-REX conducted the procedure autonomously. But it may take a week before scientists know how much, if any, seizures have been taken, and if another attempt is needed. If successful, Osiris-Rex will return samples in 2023.

It promised to be the most harrowing part of the mission, which began with a launch from Cape Canaveral back in 2016.

NASA spacecraft Osiris Rex lands on asteroid Bennu on mission to collect dust | Science
NASA's OSIRIS-Rex successfully collects samples from asteroid Bennu

The Origins, Spectral Interpretation, Resource Identification, Security, Regolith Explorer (OSIRIS-REx) unfurled its robotic arm 321 million km from Earth on the surface of Bennu to collect dust and pebbles in what was called a "touch-and-go" (TAG) event.

After determining that the coast was clear, Osiris-Rex closed in the last few yards for sampling. Scientists planned to use the arm to fire pressurized nitrogen to stir up and catch the surface rubble before the spacecraft departed the asteroid's orbit. Bennu itself has an ever-so-slight, 1-in-2,700 chance of colliding with Earth sometime between the year 2175 and 2199.

NASA's science mission chief, Thomas Zurbuchen, likened Bennu to the Rosetta Stone: "something that's out there and tells the history of our entire Earth, of the solar system, during the last billions of years". Data from OSIRIS-REx also indicate that the rocks on Bennu are so fragile that they could not reach the Earth's surface intact. If not, OSIRIS-REx will prepare for another attempt on 12 January. They'll do the work inside a temporary clean room set up in a nearby aircraft hangar, just as ARES did after the Stardust comet sample capsule successfully landed in 2006.

All of that and more was justification for the mission and the source of hope for what it might produce, but Tuesday was a day for NASA and the mission team to celebrate in COVID-19 masks something big and never done before.

"Sample collection is complete, and the back-away burn has executed", mission operator Estelle Church said seconds later, confirming that the spacecraft had eased away from Bennu after making contact.

Instead of the so-called "seven-minute horror" of trying to land on the Perseverance Rover on Tuesday next year, expect "4.5 hours of mild anxiety", according to Beth Buck, the mission's program manager at the OSIRIS-RX team.

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