NASA spacecraft lands on asteroid Bennu, grabs sample

This undated image made available by NASA shows the asteroid Bennu from the OSIRIS-REx spacecraft. After almost two years circling the ancient asteroid OSIRIS-REx will attempt to descend to the treacherous boulder-packed surface and snatch a handful

The event, which lasted around 4 1/2 hours, saw Osiris-Rex approaching Bennu at tortoise speed, about 0.19 miles per hour, and then touching down on the asteroid for five seconds to collect the rubble.

The OSIRIS-REx team took it slow and steady, sending commands that took the spacecraft through a four-hour descent sequence.

The van-sized machine quickly managed to fulfill its primary mission of collecting nearly two ounces worth of samples before lifting off again, according to CNN.

"After over a decade of planning, the team is overjoyed at the success of today's sampling attempt", Dante Lauretta, the mission's principal investigator and a professor at the University of Arizona Lunar and Planetary Laboratory, said in a statement, CNN reported. Image credits Flickr / NASA's Marshall Space Flight Center.

In a similar effort, Japan's space agency, which past year collected the first-ever subsurface samples from an asteroid around 200 million miles away, should see the material arrive back on Earth in December 2020.

"This is NASA's first historic mission to return a planet, and it's hard", Thomas Zurbuchen, associate manager of NASA's Science Mission Directorate, told a news conference Monday.

NASA's OSIRIS-Rex successfully collects samples from asteroid Bennu

This mosaic image of the asteroid Bennu consisted of 12 PolyCam images collected on December 2, 2018 by the OSIRIS-REx spacecraft at a range of 24 km (15 miles).

The mission, if it goes successfully, will be the first USA mission to carry samples from an asteroid back to Earth and the largest sample returned from space since the Apollo era, according to the National Aeronautics and Space Administration. The sample will be brought back to Earth in 2023, says Jason Dworkin, NASA project scientist for the mission.

The OSIRIS-Rex spacecraft will have to detect hazards and delay its mission if there are any obstacles in the way of sample collection.

Osiris-Rex eased its robotic arm down to a target zone just eight meters (26 feet) in diameter, then fired pressurized nitrogen to agitate the surface material and catch its sample.

Osiris-Rex can make up to three touch-and-go maneuvers in case it comes up short. Regardless of the number of attempts required, samples will not return to Earth until 2023 to close a mission valued at over $ 800 million. "This is definitely the main event of the mission at the moment", said Lucy Lim, a NASA scientist. There's enough boulder-free space here to allow the craft to autonomously land, since the distances between Bennu and Earth are too great for ground control to take over. First, they'll compare images of the Nightingale site before and after TAG to see how much surface material moved around in response to the burst of gas. The arm will collect a sample between 2 bac and 2 kg before returning from safety.

At this point, all that NASA knows for sure is that the landing went perfectly and the sample collector operated as intended. This technique is analogous to a person spinning with one arm extended while holding a string with a ball attached to the end. Now, the OSIRIS-REx team will begin to assess whether the spacecraft grabbed any material, and, if so, how much; the goal is at least 60 grams, which is roughly equivalent to a full-size candy bar.

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