NASA spacecraft sent asteroid debris in successful sampling

NASA’s OSIRIS-REx spacecraft crushed stones and sent debris flying when it briefly touched an asteroid, strong evidence that samples have been collected for return to Earth, officials said Wednesday.

Scientists won’t know until next week how much has been collected from the asteroid Bennu, they want at least a handful of the cosmic debris. However, close-up shots and videos of Tuesday’s touch-and-go operation raised hopes that the goal was achieved.

“We really made a mess on the surface of this asteroid, but it’s a good mess, the kind of mess we were hoping for,” said senior scientist Dante Lauretta of the University of Arizona at Tucson.

It was the US’s first asteroid sampling, four years after the spacecraft left Cape Canaveral and two years after it reached Bennu. Japan took asteroid samples twice.

The carbon-rich Bennu is a time capsule believed to contain the original building blocks of the solar system 4.5 billion years ago. It can help scientists better understand the origins of the earth and life as we know it.

OSIRIS-REx almost hit the mark and reached with its robotic arm up to one meter (meter) from its intended target zone in the middle of the nightingale crater surrounded by boulders. The sampling container on the arm was in contact with the black, crumbly terrain for about six seconds and pressed at least 2 centimeters into the ground, crushing a large stone.

As planned, a second later, pressurized nitrogen gas fired at the surface to create a shower of debris so the spaceship could vacuum up as much dust and pebbles as possible.

The spaceship withdrew quickly and was 50 miles from Bennu by Wednesday.

It took several hours for the pictures to come in. Lauretta said he was up until the wee hours of Wednesday and was overjoyed with what he saw. He watched the touch-and-go video about 100 times, “It’s just so cool,” and then went to sleep.

“I dreamed of a wonder world made up of Bennu regolith particles floating all around me,” he said.

Over the next few days, a camera on the spacecraft will aim at the sampler at the end of the robotic arm, looking for any signs of asteroid debris. If the lighting is right, the camera may even look into the sample chamber. The spaceship is also rotated slowly with an outstretched arm in order to obtain a more precise measurement of the precious payload.

Based on the images, “the sampling event went really well, as best we could have imagined, and I think the chances of having material in it have increased significantly,” said Lauretta.

If less than 60 grams have been collected, the team must decide by October 30th whether to try again. A second attempt would not take place until January at a different location.

The plan is for OSIRIS-REx to leave Bennu in March to get samples on track for a touchdown in the Utah desert in 2023.

“We are far from finished,” warned Thomas Zurbuchen, head of NASA’s scientific missions.

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