Washington DC, Oct 20 (efe-epa).- NASA’s Osiris-Rex spacecraft briefly touched Bennu asteroid on Tuesday to collect dust and pebbles to bring back to Earth in 2023.
This is the first time that the United States’ National Aeronautics and Space Administration has attempted to return materials from an asteroid.
NASA said in a statement that 500-meter-wide Bennu “offers scientists a window into the early solar system as it was first taking shape billions of years ago and flinging ingredients that could have helped seed life on Earth.”
Bennu is located more than 320 million kilometers from Earth and the probe reached the asteroid after a journey of more than four years – it was launched from Cape Canaveral, Florida, in September 2016.
Osiris-Rex (Origins, Spectral Interpretation, Resource Identification, Security, Regolith Explorer) arrived at Bennu on Dec. 3, 2018 and began orbiting it on Dec. 31, 2018.
To reach the sample collection site called Nightingale, the spacecraft had to pass “a boulder the size of a two-story building, nicknamed ‘Mount Doom,’ to touch down in a clear spot in a crater on Bennu’s northern hemisphere. The size of a small parking lot, the Nightingale site is one of the few relatively clear spots on this unexpectedly boulder-covered space rock,” NASA said.
After landing, Osiris-Rex blasted its surface with compressed nitrogen to stir up dust and gravel for collection.
Whether the collection was successful and if there is enough of a sample – at least 60 grams (2.11 ounces) – to return with the probe to Earth is still to be confirmed.
If the sample proves to be insufficient, the spacecraft will make a second attempt in January.
“This was an incredible feat – and today we’ve advanced both science and engineering and our prospects for future missions to study these mysterious ancient storytellers of the solar system,” Thomas Zurbuchen, associate administrator for NASA’s Science Mission Directorate, said in a statement.
“A piece of primordial rock that has witnessed our solar system’s entire history may now be ready to come home for generations of scientific discovery, and we can’t wait to see what comes next,” he added.
If the mission is successful, in March 2021 – the next time Bennu will be properly aligned with Earth for the most fuel-efficient return flight – Osiris-Rex will embark on its return journey.
The probe is scheduled to return to Earth on Sep. 24, 2024 in Utah’s west desert. EFE-EPA