NASA gearing up for epic asteroid-sampling maneuver next month

This artist’s idea reveals NASA’s OSIRIS-REx spacecraft descending towards asteroid Bennu to gather a pattern of the asteroid’s floor.

(Picture: © NASA/Goddard/College of Arizona)

NASA is poised to make historical past subsequent month.

The OSIRIS-REx probe is scheduled to tug off NASA’s first-ever asteroid-sampling operation on Oct. 20, snagging valuable grime and gravel from a 1,640-foot-wide (500 meters) area rock known as Bennu. 

“I am unable to inform you how excited I’m,” OSIRIS-REx principal investigator Dante Lauretta, of the College of Arizona, mentioned throughout a information convention on Thursday (Sept. 24). “I am assured that we’re as much as the problem that is forward of us.”

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That problem is appreciable. OSIRIS-REx, which has been orbiting Bennu for almost two years, will spiral down towards a small crater dubbed Nightingale on Oct. 20, aiming for a comparatively flat, boulder-free area simply 26 toes (eight m) extensive. That can be a fairly tight squeeze for the spacecraft, which is the scale of a 15-passenger van.

“This spot is simply the width of some parking locations and is surrounded by giant, boulder-like buildings the scale of small buildings,” mentioned Mike Moreau, OSIRIS-REx deputy challenge supervisor at NASA’s Goddard House Flight Heart in Greenbelt, Maryland. (The OSIRIS-REx crew has nicknamed essentially the most perilous of these obstacles “Mt. Doom,” by the best way.)

“So, for some perspective: The following time you park your automotive in entrance of your home or in entrance of a espresso store and stroll inside, take into consideration the problem of navigating OSIRIS-REx into one in every of these spots from 200 million miles away,” Moreau mentioned.

And OSIRIS-REx should make this daring transfer by itself. It’s going to take indicators greater than 18 minutes to journey from Earth to the spacecraft on Oct. 20, far too lengthy for real-time management.

The safe-touchdown zone is way smaller than the one initially envisioned by the mission crew, which designed OSIRIS-REx with a 165-foot-wide (50 m) cushion in thoughts. However Bennu proved to be much more bouldery than observations by ground-based scopes had steered. And the very best sampling materials — recent and fine-grained stuff that hasn’t been uncovered to the cruel area setting for lengthy — occurred to reside in Nightingale.

OSIRIS-REx will not keep parked there for lengthy. The probe will kiss the fine-grained grime with its sampling mechanism, which is affixed to the top of an 11-foot-long (3.four m) robotic arm, for only a few seconds. That grime can be stirred up by a blast of nitrogen fuel and picked up by the sampling head, which crew members have likened to a automotive air filter.

OSIRIS-REx will then again slowly and punctiliously away from Bennu, and the mission crew will assess its catch. The purpose is to get not less than 2 ounces (60 grams) of asteroid materials. If the Oct. 20 haul is deemed inadequate — and the crew expects to resolve a technique or one other on Oct. 30 — OSIRIS-REx might make one other try, at a backup website known as Osprey, no sooner than January 2021. (The probe has three nitrogen bottles, so it might theoretically take three swings at pattern assortment.)

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NASA’s OSIRIS-REx mission’s view of the asteroid Bennu on Aug. 11, 2020, throughout a rehearsal for the spacecraft’s sampling maneuver this fall. (Picture credit score: NASA/Goddard/College of Arizona)

If all goes in accordance with plan, OSIRIS-REx will depart Bennu in March 2021 and head again towards Earth with its cosmic cargo. The asteroid pattern will land within the Utah desert, encased in a particular return capsule, on Sept. 24, 2023. 

The fabric will then be studied by scientists world wide who need to study concerning the photo voltaic system’s early days and how life acquired began on Earth, amongst different matters. In spite of everything, asteroids are “time capsules” left over from the planet-formation epoch, NASA officers have burdened. 

And Bennu is wealthy in carbon-containing natural compounds and hydrated minerals. It is subsequently much like the area rocks that many researchers assume helped, through numerous impacts, make Earth a liveable world way back.

The $800 million OSIRIS-REx mission — whose identify is brief for “Origins, Spectral Interpretation, Useful resource Identification, Safety-Regolith Explorer” — launched in September 2016 and arrived in orbit round Bennu on Dec. 31, 2018. 

The probe’s work over the previous 21 months hasn’t been completely dedicated to prepping for the sample-collecting kiss. For instance, its observations are additionally serving to scientists higher perceive how asteroids transfer by area, which might result in higher trajectory forecasting for probably hazardous asteroids (a category that features Bennu).

OSIRIS-REx will not be the primary probe to carry pristine asteroid bits right down to Earth. Japan’s Hayabusa probe delivered a couple of grains of the stony asteroid Itokawa in 2010. And the Hayabusa2 spacecraft not too long ago collected samples of the carbon-rich asteroid Ryugu, that are scheduled to reach right here this December.

The OSIRIS-REx and Hayabusa2 groups have been working collectively over time, and their collaboration will proceed after each missions’ samples come dwelling, Lauretta mentioned.

“Mixed, it is a tremendous information set — to have the ability to have data from these two near-Earth asteroids, which superficially look comparable to one another however intimately are literally fairly distinct,” Lauretta mentioned. “We’re actually excited to have a global coordinated sample-analysis program taking a look at each of the supplies from these asteroids, and studying much more about asteroids normally and these carbon-rich asteroids specifically.”

Mike Wall is the creator of “Out There” (Grand Central Publishing, 2018; illustrated by Karl Tate), a ebook concerning the seek for alien life. Comply with him on Twitter @michaeldwall. Comply with us on Twitter @Spacedotcom or Fb. 

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