American probe Osiris-Rex touches asteroid Bennu, for a few seconds, and makes History 330 million kilometers away from Earth
More than four years after its launch, Nasa’s Osiris-Rex probe was able to briefly touch asteroid Bennu’s surface on Tuesday to collect 60 grams of rock and dust samples, in a high-precision operation 330 million kilometers from Earth.
“Touchdown confirmed… Sampling is in progress” announced the space agency during a live broadcast of the operations. The team of scientists erupted in celebration, drawing applauses at the end of the procedure.
“Everything was perfect,” said the head of the mission, Dante Lauretta, emotionally. “We made History this afternoon,” he added.
The spacecraft, about the size of a large van, has been oscillating around the asteroid since the end of 2018 to prepare the high complex and precision operation, performed by a delicate autonomous maneuver, based on instructions sent by NASA and Lockheed Martin engineers.
“It is not easy to navigate around such small body” explained Heather Enos, the project’s principal deputy researcher. She spent 12 years on the mission preparing for this moment, that rested on a critical 16 second period.
Shortly after fired pressurized nitrogen to agitate Bennu’s surface material, the probe’s robotic arm collects the particles less than two centimeters in diameter raised by the impulse.
The probe will send images and data of the operation in the early hours of Wednesday, to determine if the spacecraft has reached the purpose of collecting the samples. NASA hopes to collect small amount of regolith that will help unravel the origins of our solar system.
Scientists are interested in analyzing the composition of the asteroids in the solar system because they are made of the same materials that formed the planets. It’s “almost a Rosetta stone, something that’s out there and tells the history of our entire Earth, of the solar system during the last billions of years,” said NASA’s chief scientist, Thomas Zurbuchen.
In next few days, the American probe is expected to send numerous data and images of the precious payload that will give an estimation of the sampling result. There is a possibility Osiris-Rex arm was unable to land on a flat surface and collect the spacecraft. If the desired amount collected is not well succeeded, a new attempt can be tried.
Osiris-Rex will begin its long journey back to Earth in March 2021. The samples are expected to arrive the Blue Planet on September 24, 2023, with a planned landing in the American desert of Utah. With the material collected, laboratories on Earth will be able to carry out much more high powered analysis of their physical and chemical characteristics, said NASA’s planetary science division director Lori Glaze.
Not all samples will be analyzed immediately, like those brought back from the Moon by the Apollo astronauts, which NASA is still opening up 50 years later. These new samples “will allow future scientists to answer questions that we cannot even ask today, using analysis techniques that have not yet been invented,” said Glaze.
Bennu is not a flat asteroid, covered by a harmless “beach” of fine sand, as scientists expected. However, 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 project’s team was surprised to receive photographs showing that it was covered with pebbles and boulders sometimes 30 meters high. Since then, scientists have mapped the asteroid and calculated the least risky landing site, named as Nightingale Crater, with a target zone of just eight meters in diameter to approach.
Last year, Japan became the first nation to touch an asteroid after its Hayabusa2 probe collected some dust from Ryugu, and is now on its way home. It’s scheduled to arrive in December.
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