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NASA’s Osiris-Rex goes to the asteroid Bennu: Here’s what happens


NASA’s Osiris-Rex Spacecraft Artist conception collecting a sample from the asteroid Bennu.

NASA / Goddard / University of Arizona

NASA’s Osiris-Rex spacecraft will easily hit down a large asteroid next week and will pick up some rocks and dust from its surface to return to Earth for study. The event marks a major milestone for NASA and a potential boon for science, space exploration and our understanding of the solar system.

The collection of touch-and-go (TAG) sample of the asteroid 101955 Bennu is scheduled to arrive on Tuesday, October 20 at around 3:12 pm PT. NASA will broadcast the manual TAG live on NASA TV and the agency’s website starting at 2 pm PT Tuesday. Here is everything you need to know about Osiris-Rex, Bennu and how NASA plans to pickpocket an asteroid.

When did the mission begin?

Osiris-Rex as a concept has existed since at least 2004, when a team of astronomers first proposed the idea to NASA. After more than a decade of development, the spacecraft launched from Cape Canaveral, Florida on September 8, 2016, on top of an Atlas V rocket from the United Launch Alliance, a joint venture between Lockheed Martin and Boeing. The spacecraft was spent on the next 26 months journey to Bennu, which officially arrived on December 3, 2018.

Since then, the mission team has spent nearly two years orbiting the diamond-shaped rock space, exploring and mapping over it to select the best sampling area. In recent months, rehearsals have begun early in the upcoming sample sample test, and now the team says they are ready to play TAG with Bennu.

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Why Bennu?

Bennu is called a “rubble pile” asteroid, meaning it formed in the deep cosmic past when gravity was slowly forced together by ancient collisions. The result is a body shape of something like a rotating top with a diameter of about a third of a mile (500 meters) and a surface strewn with boulders and boulders.

Bennu is thought to be a window into the solar system’s past: a clean, carbon-rich body that carries the blocks of both the planet and life. Some of these resources, such as water and metals, may also be worth mining at some point in the future for use on Earth or in space exploration.

The asteroid has another characteristic that is particularly interesting to scientists, and humans in general – it has the potential to affect the Earth in the distant future. On NASA’s impact risk list, Bennu is ranked No. 2. Current data shows dozens of potential impacts in the last quarter of the 22nd century, although all have only one minute chance to occur.

How will the TAG work?

For anyone who has ever fought robots or perhaps entered a robotics competition, the Osiris-Rex mission seems to be the ultimate dream of a young roboticist. The touch-and-go sampling technique is a complex, high-function task that builds on a key climactic moment for many years. If it succeeds, it will play a role in history and our future in space.

The main plan is that Osiris-Rex will lead Bennu to a rocky place the landing site is called Nightingale. The van-size spacecraft needs to negotiate with the boulder-sized buildings around the landing area to touch a clear space that is only the size of a few parking spaces. However, a robotic sampling arm will be the only part of the Osiris-Rex that is actually set on the surface. One of the three pressurized nitrogen canisters will explode to evoke a sample of dust and pebbles that could be caught on the collector’s arm for safe retention and return to Earth.

The descent to the surface of Bennu will take about four hours, about the time it will take the asteroid to make a full revolution. After this slow procedure, the actual TAG sample collection procedure takes quite less than 16 seconds.

Preparation for the TAG did not go away exactly as planned. The mission organizers initially relied on the surface of Bennu to have many potential landing spots covered mainly with fine materials comparable to sand or gravel. It turns the surface of Bennu is so rugged that there is no truly welcoming landing spot.

After spending more than the last two years reviewing the mission, the team decided to try the “threaded needle” through the Nightingale’s huge vantage point and a few other backup sample sites. It is still possible that the surface will prove to be too rocky to obtain a good sample. If this is the case, the team may choose to try again on another site. The Osiris-Rex is equipped with three nitrogen canisters to burn and interfere with the surface, which means the team gets up to three tests taking a sample.

Then what?

Immediately after collecting its sample, Osiris-Rex will fire its thrusters to drive away from Bennu. The spacecraft will continue to hang above Bennu for the rest of 2020 before ending a departure drive next year and embarking on a two-year journey back to Earth.

On September 24, 2023, Osiris-Rex is scheduled to kill its sample return capsule, which will reach the Utah desert and be retrieved for study.

Hasn’t this been done before?

Yes Japan’s Hayabusa spacecraft successfully restores asteroid particles 25143 Itokawa to Earth in 2010. Its successor Hayabusa-2 succeeds fired a special bronze bullet at the large Ryugu asteroid in 2019 and then got some shrapnel. That sample is currently back on Earth.

How can I watch?

Follow the NASA livestream, which starts on Tuesday at 2 pm PT. You can also follow the Osiris-Rex Twitter feed to get the latest updates.

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