REx makes historic maneuver by successfully taking samples of asteroid Bennu

James Marshall
November 22, 2020

After orbiting the nearest planet Moon Bannu for almost two years, NASA's Osiris-RX spacecraft is ready to collect samples from the surface of the star planet on Tuesday to reach its robotic arm.

The Apollo missions between 1969 and 1972 brought back 382 kilograms of moon rock, pebble and stone samples.

If all goes according to plan, the samples collected by the craft will be returned to Earth in 2023 for scientists to examine.

OSIRIS-REx's Touch-And-Go Sample Acquisition Mechanism (TAGSAM) successfully touched and fired one of its nitrogen gas canisters on the asteroid surface, collecting material through a filter in the round sampler head.

Finally, Lauretta says, the flight engineers will use "an incredibly clever physics technique" to see how much energy it takes to rotate the spacecraft with its sample arm extended at full reach. It has since been conducting surveys and preparing for the sample collection, such as by carrying out rehearsal operations.

To study and preserve the asteroid specimen, NASA is now building laboratories at Johnson Space Center in Houston.

"If this kind of chemistry was happening in the early solar system, it could have happened in other solar systems as well", Loretta, OSIRIS-Rex's primary investigator, told Al Jazeera in an interview ahead of Tuesday's progress.

A NASA spacecraft on Tuesday touched down on an asteroid that scientists believe could hold the building blocks of life.

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Mission - which means segmentation, spectral interpretation, resource identification, security-regolith explorer - was launched in September, 2016.

After determining that the coast was clear, Osiris-Rex closed in the last few yards for sampling.

NASA chose this particular asteroid because it is conveniently close and also ancient: scientists calculated that it formed in the first 10 million years of our solar system's history, 4.5 billion years ago. Bennu itself has an ever-so-slight, 1-in-2,700 chance of colliding with Earth sometime between the year 2175 and 2199.

"It's a historic first mission for NASA, returning an asteroid sample, and it's hard", said Thomas Zurbuchen, associate administrator of NASA's Science Mission Directorate, during a Monday press conference.

Osiris-Rex can make up to three touch-and-go maneuvers in case it comes up short. The more scientists know about the paths and properties of potentially unsafe space rocks like this one, the better. By October 30, NASA will confirm that the spacecraft has collected enough samples, or if it is called Asprey at another landing site in January, an attempt needs to be made to collect samples. "The spacecraft will then divert away from Earth, going into orbit around the sun, and the canister will descend to the atmosphere and on a parachute land in the Utah desert just before 9:00 a.m. Mountain Daylight Time on Sunday, Sept. 24, 2023".

"That will be another big day for us".

"A lot of things could go wrong because the spacecraft's about the size of a van, and the asteroid has a lot of boulders in it", Lucy Lim, a planetary scientist at NASA, said in an earlier interview. Bennu has been (mostly) undisturbed for billions of years.

Other reports by Click Lancashire

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