NASA scientists on Tuesday appeared to make a successful historic collection of its first samples from an asteroid 200 million miles from Earth.
A van-sized spacecraft dubbed Osiris-Rex is trying to collect at least 2 ounces of rocks and dust from the asteroid Bennu, which contains substances from the early solar system, to return to Earth for further study.
“I can’t believe that we actually pulled this off,” said Dante Lauretta, mission lead investigator at the University of Arizona, after the spacecraft scooped up rubble from the asteroid’s surface. “This is history. It’s amazing.”
The mission team had Osiris-Rex touch down at a site called Nightingale, a crater the width of a few parking spaces that is surrounded by building-sized boulders and contains the most fine-grained material.
However, the asteroid’s gravity was too low for the spacecraft to land Tuesday. So Osiris-Rex touched down for about 10 seconds and extended an 11-foot robotic arm to try to grab rubble without hitting the boulders. 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.
Over the next couple of days, scientists will capture images of the asteroid material and use the spacecraft to determine the amount of collected rubble with a spin maneuver to make sure they got enough samples. If the spacecraft didn’t collect at least 2 ounces — the largest sample collected from space since the Apollo program — then scientists will have two other attempts to collect rubble.
Osiris-Rex launched from Cape Canaveral, Florida, on Sept. 8, 2016, and arrived at Bennu on Dec. 3, 2018. The spacecraft is scheduled to depart Bennu in 2021 and deliver its samples on Sept. 24, 2023.
Bennu, which is about as tall as the Empire State Building, could possibly hit the Earth between 2175 and 2199, scientists say, although they predict a 1-in-2,700 chance of that happening.
“Our ability to make a detailed study of the asteroid now helps us prepare should Bennu still be considered hazardous in the next century,” NASA said.
Scientists from the University of Arizona partnered with NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Maryland, to carry out the mission. Lockheed Martin Space Systems in Denver built the spacecraft.
Scientists chose to collect from Bennu out of nearly 1 million asteroids because of its composition, size and distance from Earth. Bennu is a rare carbon-rich asteroid and expected to contain many organic compounds and water-bearing minerals like clays, according to NASA.
When the mission team chose Bennu, it guessed the asteroid’s surface would be like a sandy beach. Instead, the team discovered an uneven, rough terrain filled with large boulders.
The number and size of the boulders presented a challenge: The spacecraft could hit a rock, making it automatically back away without collecting a sample. Yet NASA estimates the chance of that happening to be less than 6%. Another complication could be that the spacecraft touches the surface but doesn’t collect enough asteroid rubble.
If enough rubble isn’t collected, the scientists plan to try to collect from a secondary site on Bennu called Osprey.
Although NASA has collected comet dust and solar wind particles, it hasn’t before attempted to collect a sample from an asteroid.
“The Osiris-Rex sample, like the Apollo samples before it, will be studied by scientists for generations — by people not yet born, using techniques not yet invented, answering questions we don’t even yet know to ask,” NASA said.
Ten years ago, the Japanese Hayabusa spacecraft returned a small amount of dust from asteroid Itokawa. Come December, Japan’s Hayabusa II is anticipated to return to Earth with a sample from the asteroid Ryugu. NASA hopes to gather more asteroid material than Japan has collected.
In the 1990s, NASA’s Galileo became the first spacecraft to fly past an asteroid. In 2007, NASA’s Dawn spacecraft orbited and explored asteroid Vesta for more than a year before heading toward dwarf planet Ceres in 2012.
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