NASA this week confirmed it has collected and stored enough of its first-ever asteroid rubble to send back to Earth.
The space agency said Thursday its Osiris-Rex spacecraft gathered more than 2 ounces of rock and dust from Bennu, an asteroid 200 million miles from Earth. The mission team received images showing the spacecraft’s collector head “overflowing with material” and spent days ensuring the rubble was properly stowed.
Now that the enough rubble has been stored, NASA will focus on returning the spacecraft back to Earth starting in March. Osiris-Rex is expected to arrive with the asteroid rubble on Sept. 24, 2023.
“This achievement by Osiris-Rex on behalf of NASA and the world has lifted our vision to the higher things we can achieve together, as teams and nations,” said NASA Administrator Jim Bridenstine. “Samples like this are going to transform what we know about our universe and ourselves, which is at the base of all NASA’s endeavors.”
Last week, Osiris-Rex successfully touched down at a site on the asteroid called Nightingale, a crater the width of a few parking spaces encompassed by building-sized boulders, and sucked up fine-grained surface rubble using an 11-foot robotic arm. Scientists fired pressurized nitrogen to stir up and catch the material before the van-sized spacecraft left the asteroid’s orbit.
Scientists decided 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, expected to contain many organic compounds and water-bearing minerals like clays, and could help scientists understand the early solar system, according to NASA.
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. Collecting asteroid dust could also help NASA prepare should Bennu pose a threat in the next century.
While NASA has collected comet dust and solar wind particles, it hasn’t before collected samples from an asteroid, a feat only accomplished by Japan previously.
In 2010, 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. However, NASA should have gathered more asteroid material than Japan has collected.
Osiris-Rex launched from Cape Canaveral, Florida, on Sept. 8, 2016, and arrived at Bennu on Dec. 3, 2018.
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.
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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