NASA Spacecraft Collects Sample From Asteroid's Surface

Osiris-Rex's robotic arm makes contact with asteroid Bennu to collect samples

NASA is celebrating tonight after its OSIRIS-REx spacecraft successfully touched the Bennu asteroid in a bid to collect rock and dust samples from its surface. When the spaceship has collected enough material on this first TAG attempt, OSIRIS-REx will stow the sample in preparation for its return to Earth.

Mission control and the public learned of all this about 18.5 minutes later than it actually happened because of the time it takes for the signals to return from the space rock, which for the most part orbits between Venus and Mars. The spacecraft collected a sample that will be returned to Earth in 2023. Nightingale became the primary target, located in a 20-meter crater near the asteroid's north pole.

In the images, which were stitched together to show the spacecraft touching down, the spacecraft's robotic arm appeared to crush some of the porous rocks on the surface. One of the three compressed nitrogen bottles will stir up a sample of dust and small rocks, which will then be caught on the collector's head by hand to keep them safe and return to Earth. NASA received confirmation of the successful touchdown at 6:08 p.m. EDT.

Then the spacecraft fired its thrusters to back away from Bennu's surface to complete what scientists playfully described as a "boop". In recent months, rehearsals have tried to collect samples.

It's unclear if NASA actually retrieved a sample.

The van-sized OSIRIS-Rex spacecraft is in "good health" after the Tuesday mission, NASA said.

After spending the last two years re-evaluating the mission, the team chose to try "threading the needle" through the boulder-filled landscape at Nightingale.

So, while this sample collection maneuver was taking place, the mission team was just as much a spectator group as the viewing audience.


Several studies were published on the matter in the journals Science and Science Advances, noting that carbon-bearing, organic material is "widespread" on the surface of the asteroid. "If all goes well, this sample will be studied by scientists for generations to come". They had programmed the spacecraft, to the best of their ability, to perform the maneuver all on its own.

Dante Lauretta spoke very hopeful about the mission accomplished. We kind of made a mess on the surface of this asteroid. It's the kind of mess we hoped for'.

There are more than a million known asteroids in our solar system, but Bennu was singled out for the OSIRIS-REx mission because it fit certain criteria regarding size, location and composition, according to Heather Enos, the mission's deputy principal investigator at the University of Arizona. A few days after looking at the SamCam images, they'll slowly spin the spacecraft with the sampling arm extended to see if there are any changes to the arm's mass at the collection point.

Bennu is also one of "the most potentially hazardous asteroids", NASA said, as it has a "relatively high probability of impacting the Earth late in the 22nd century". The feat was earlier accomplished only by Japan.

NASA's last space mission was not easy.

This was based on artist renderings of the spacecraft, coupled with digital images of the asteroid's surface that OSIRIS-REx has been collecting for well over a year now. The team will analyze this data and make a decision by October 30 if they have collected a sufficient sample.

Editor's note: Osiris-Rex touches the pen.

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