Its Osiris-Rex spacecraft NASA will land briefly on a large asteroid on Tuesday and collect some rocks and dust from its surface to return them to Earth for study.
This marks a major milestone for NASA and a potential benefit to science, space exploration, and our understanding of the solar system. Lockheed Martin Space will broadcast the daring mission live on Tuesday and we have everything you need to know about the mission and how to watch it.
Sample collection from the asteroid 101955 Bennu is expected to take place on Tuesday, October 20 at approximately 3:12 p.m. PT. NASA will broadcast the sample collection live on TV of NASA and in site of the service from 2 p.m. PT on Tuesday.
When did the mission start?
The Osiris-Rex has been around since 2004, when a team of astronomers first proposed the idea to NASA. After more than a decade of development, the spacecraft launched from Cape Canaveral, Florida on September 8, 2016, on a rocket Atlas V from the United Launch Alliance, a joint venture between Lockheed Martin and Boeing. The spacecraft spent the next 26 months traveling to Bennu, officially arriving on December 3, 2018.
Since then, Osiris-Rex has spent almost two years orbiting the diamond-shaped space rock, studying and mapping its surface to select the best sampling point. In recent months, rehearsals have begun before the upcoming sample collection effort and now the team says it is ready to take the big step.
Why was the asteroid Bennu chosen?
Bennu was formed in the past when gravity was forced to slowly unite the remnants of an ancient collision. The result is a body shape like a rotating top with a diameter of about 500 meters and a surface with large rocks and stones.
Bennu is considered a window into the past of the solar system: a virgin, carbon-rich body that carries the building blocks of both the planets and life. Some of these resources, such as water and minerals, could also be mined at some point in the future for use in Earth or in space exploration.
The asteroid has another feature that makes it particularly important to scientists and humans in general - it has the potential to affect the Earth in the distant future. In NASA's list of the most dangerous bodies to collide with the Earth, Bennu is ranked No. 2. Current data show dozens of possible collisions in the last quarter of the 22nd century, although all are unlikely to actually happen.
How will sample collection work?
For anyone who deals with robotics or has participated in a similar competition, the Osiris-Rex mission seems to be the ultimate climax of a young robotics friend's dream. The touch-and-go sampling process is a complex, high-level process that has been built for years. If it succeeds, it will play a role in our history and our future in space.
The basic plan is that the Osiris-Rex will land at Bennu in a rocky location called Nightingale. The spacecraft, which is the size of a truck, will have to go through boulders the size of buildings to land in a relatively passable space that is as large as a few parking spaces. However, a robotic sampling arm will be the only part of the Osiris-Rex that comes to the surface. One of the three pressurized nitrogen canisters will explode to create a cloud of dust and small rocks that can then be caught in the boom's collection head for safe storage and return to Earth.
The descent to the surface of Bennu will take about four hours, which is the time it takes αστεροειδής to make a complete rotation. After this slow approach, the actual sampling process takes less than 16 seconds.
Preparation for meditation did not go exactly as planned. The organizers of the mission initially hoped that the surface of Bennu would have many possible landing points covered mainly with materials comparable to sand or gravel. It turns out that the surface of Bennu is extremely rough without really welcoming landing spots.
What will happen after sampling?
Immediately after collecting the sample, Osiris-Rex will fire its propellers to get away from Bennu. The spacecraft will continue to be above Bennu for the rest of 2020 before finally performing a departure maneuver within the next year, to embark on a two-year voyage back to Earth.
On September 24, 2023, the Osiris-Rex is scheduled to launch the sample capsule, which will land in the Utah desert and be retrieved for study.
Has something similar happened in the past?
Yes. The Japanese spacecraft Hayabusa successfully brought tiny grains of the asteroid 25143 Itokawa to Earth in 2010. Its successor, Hayabusa-2, fired a special bronze ball into the large asteroid Ryugu in 2019 and then recovered samples of its surface. This specimen is on its way to Earth.
How can I track the shipment?
Follow the live stream of NASA, which starts on Tuesday at 2 p.m. PT. You can also follow Osiris-Rex's feed at Twitter to receive the latest updates.