The minivan-sized OSIRIS-REx spacecraft, built by Lockheed Martin, extended its 11-foot (3.35 m) robotic arm toward a flat patch of gravel near Bennu's north pole and plucked the sample of rocks, the space agency's first handful of pristine asteroid rocks. The size of a small parking lot, the site Nightingale site is one of the few relatively clear spots on this unexpectedly boulder-covered space rock.
And if OSIRIS-REx grabbed enough - at least 60 grams - then the mission team will start making preparations for the spacecraft to leave Bennu next year and embark on the long journey home, carrying its precious cargo back to scientists here on Earth. Well, for starters, there is a real possibility that Bennu will crash into Earth sometime in the next century.
NASA's Origins, Spectral Interpretation, Resource Identification, Security, Regolith Explorer (OSIRIS-REx) made contact with the asteroid Bennu on October 20, 2020. The spacecraft then fired a pressurized nitrogen bottle onto the asteroid and used the thrust generated from the gas to lift off Bennu's surface. Then seconds later, the spacecraft slowly backed away from the asteroid and is continuing to drift away until the sample is assessed.
The goal was to collect at least 1.7 ounces of fine-grained material, but the spacecraft can carry up to 4.4 pounds, Heather Enos, OSIRIS-REx deputy principal investigator at the University of Arizona said. After almost two years orbiting the boulder-packed Bennu, the spacecraft found this location to have the biggest patch of particles small enough to be swallowed up.
The latest images have offered scientists added confidence that the craft's sampling tool, the so-called Touch-And-Go Sample Acquisition Mechanism, or TAGSAM, captured rocks and dust from Bennu's surface.
Based on the images, "the sampling event went really well, as good as we could have imagined it would, and I think the chances that there's material inside ... have gone way up", Lauretta said. "We haven't done this before, so this is new territory for us".
NASA Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt provides overall mission management, systems engineering and safety and mission assurance for OSIRIS-REx.
It's objective is to take a tiny piece of material from a well-preserved, ancient asteroid that is now more than 321 million kilometers (200 million miles) from Earth and return it to scientists for analysis. Pictures taken during the operation will give team members a general idea of the amount of loot; they will put the spacecraft through a series of spins Saturday for a more accurate measure. OSIRIS-REx was launched on September 8, 2016 and is expected to return to Earth on September 24, 2023.
For scientists, this ancient and well-preserved space rock can be a great source of studies on the origins of planets.
Mission engineers will also run a full spacecraft systems checkup next week to gather more TAG event performance data. It is expected to return to Earth in 2023.
"That will be another big day for us". If the sample proves to be inadequate, another touch-and-go will be made in January.
NASA, meanwhile, plans to launch three more asteroid missions in the next two years, all one-way trips. "But this is absolutely the major event of the mission right now", NASA scientist Lucy Lim said.