CAPE CANAVERAL, Fla. (AP) – After nearly two years of spinning an ancient asteroid hundreds of millions of miles away, a NASA spacecraft this week will try to descend on the treacherous, packed rock surface and seize the a small lip.
The drama opened on Tuesday as the US takes its first crack at collecting asteroid samples for returning to Earth, a work done only by Japan.
Filled with names inspired by Egyptian mythology, the Osiris-Rex mission seeks to restore at least 2 ounces (60 grams) worth of the asteroid Bennu, the largest extract from the earth from across the moon.
The van-sized spacecraft aims for the relatively flat center of a tennis court-sized hall named Nightingale ̵1; a place comparable to some parking spaces here on Earth. The boulders are the size of buildings lying in the target touchdown zone.
So for some perspective, the next time you park your car in front of your house or in front of a coffee shop and walk inside, imagine the challenge of navigating Osiris-Rex in one of these places from 200 million miles away, “said NASA project manager deputy Mike Moreau.
When it descends from a height of half a mile-high (0.75 km high) around Bennu, the spacecraft will take a deliberate four hours to make it down, just above the surface.
The action then took action when Osiris-Rex’s 11-foot (3.4-meter) arm reached out and grabbed Bennu. The contact should last five to 10 seconds, just long enough to shoot the pressurized nitrogen gas and absorb the churned dirt and gravel. Scheduled in advance, the spacecraft will work autonomous during unprecedented touch-and-go driving. With an 18-minute delay in radio communication on each road, ground controllers for spacecraft builder Lockheed Martin near Denver will not interfere.
If the first attempt fails, Osiris-Rex may try again. Any collected samples will not reach Earth until 2023.
While NASA brought back comets of dust and solar air particles, it never attempted to sample one of the nearly 1 million known asteroids hidden in our solar system until now. In the meantime, Japan expects to get samples from the Ryugu asteroid in December – in milligrams almost 10 years after returning specks from the Itokawa asteroid.
Bennu is the paradise of an asteroid picker.
The large, black, rounded, rich space rock — taller than New York’s Empire State Building — was around when our solar system formed 4.5 billion years ago. Scientists consider this a one-hour capsule filled with clean building blocks that could help explain how life was formed on Earth and possibly elsewhere.
“It’s about understanding our origins,” said mission scientist Dante Lauretta of the University of Arizona.
There are also selfish reasons to get to know Bennu better.
The solar-orbiting asteroid, which connects the Earth every six years, could head us late into the next century. NASA puts the possibilities of an impact at 1-in-2,700. The more scientists know about the potentially threatening asteroids such as Bennu, the safer Earth.
When the Osiris-Rex exploded in 2016 on more than $ 800 million missions, scientists thought of the sandy stretch of Bennu. So the spacecraft is designed to ingest tiny pebbles less than an inch (2 centimeters) across.
Scientists were stunned to find boulders and chunky gravel all over the place when the spacecraft arrived in 2018. And pebbles occasionally see asteroid shooting, falling and sometimes crashing back into a cosmic game of ping-pong.
With so much rough terrain, engineers scrambled to aspire for a tighter area than originally expected. The Nightingale Crater, the main target, appears to have the greatest abundance of fine grains, but the rocks are still numerous, including a so-called Mount Doom.
Then COVID-19 exploded.
The team fell behind and hit the second and final contact rehearsal dress for the spacecraft until August. The sample grab was pushed in October.
“Returning a sample is difficult,” said NASA science chief Thomas Zurbuchen. “COVID made it harder.”
Osiris-Rex has three bottles of nitrogen gas, which means it can be applied three times – no more.
The spacecraft will automatically turn away if it encounters unexpected dangers such as boulders that could cause it to end. And there is a chance that it will safely affect, but failed to collect enough rubble.
In either case, the spacecraft will return to orbit around Bennu and try again in January at another location.
At the first test finally here, Lauretta was worried, nervous, excited “and confident that we had done everything possible to ensure a safe sampling.”
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