NASA’s Osiris-Rex spacecraft crushed rocks and sent rubble flying as it briefly touched an asteroid, a strong indication that samples were collected for return to Earth.
Scientists won’t know until next week how much was gathered at asteroid Bennu they want at least a handful of the cosmic rubble. But close-up pictures and video showed the touch-and-go operation raised hopes that goal was achieved.
“We really did kind of make a mess on the surface of this asteroid, but it’s a good mess, the kind of mess we were hoping for,” said lead scientist Dante Lauretta of the University of Arizona at Tucson.
It was the first asteroid-sampling effort by the U.S., coming four years after the spacecraft rocketed from Cape Canaveral and two years after it reached Bennu. Japan has taken asteroid samples twice.
Well, I definitely touched down on Bennu!
Preliminary data show the sampling head touched Bennu’s surface for approximately 6 seconds, within 3 feet (1 meter) of the targeted location. #ToBennuAndBack
— NASA's OSIRIS-REx (@OSIRISREx) October 21, 2020
The historic mission was 12 years in the making and rested on a critical 16 second period where the spacecraft performed a delicate autonomous maneuver to grab its payload at least 60 grams or a candy-bar sized amount of surface material that scientists hope will help unravel the origins of our solar system.
Osiris-Rex will hopefully, successfully come home in September 2023.
The spacecraft, about the size of a large van, slowed down to a crawl of just 10 centimeters (four inches) per second on the final phase of its descent into the asteroid’s Nightingale crater on the north pole of the asteroid, which is 490 meters (1,600 feet) in diameter.
It eased its robotic arm down to a target zone just eight meters (26 feet) in diameter, or equal to about three parking spaces, then fired pressurized nitrogen to agitate the surface material and catch its sample.
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.
After Osiris-Rex reached the rock at the end of 2018, the scientists were surprised to receive photographs showing that it was covered with pebbles and boulders sometimes 30 meters high.