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NASA’s OSIRIS-REX Makes Historic Touchdown On Asteroid Bennu To Collect Rock Samples

NASA’s Origins Spectral Interpretation Resource Identification Security Regolith Explorer (OSIRIS-REx) sample return spacecraft has successfully touched the asteroid Bennu and collected a 2-oz sample of its surface. New Atlas reports: Launched atop an Atlas/Centaur booster from Space Launch Complex 41 at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station in Florida on September 8, 2016 at 7:05 pm EDT, the robotic OSIRIS-REx probe spent four years matching orbits to rendezvous with Bennu before making a detailed survey of the body’s surface to find a safe area of scientific interest. Because Bennu is 205 million miles (330 million km) from Earth, it takes a radio signal 18 minutes to reach the spacecraft from mission control, so today’s Touch-And-Go (TAG) maneuver was carried out under completely autonomous control by the onboard computer, relying on updated instructions from NASA engineers.

During the approach, the robotic arm called the Touch-And-Go Sample Acquisition Mechanism (TAGSAM) was deployed with its disk-shaped sample collection head forward and the solar panels angled back to avoid accidental contact with the asteroid. The spacecraft then slowly approached the 26-ft (8-m) diameter “Nightingale” landing site from its normal orbit altitude of 2,500 ft (770 m) using its Natural Feature Tracking system to make a safe approach and then pull back from Bennu before a collision could occur. When the arm made contact with the asteroid surface for about 15 seconds, a blast of nitrogen gas dislodged a small, carbon-rich sample of pebbles and soil, which were collected by the sampler head and then stowed. If it turns out that insufficient material is recovered, the spacecraft will try again at a different area in January 2021. Otherwise, the current sample will be placed in a return capsule and in March 2021, OSIRIS-REx will depart from Bennu and begin its journey back to Earth.

The sample return capsule will separate from the mothership in September 2023, reenter the Earth’s atmosphere to land at the Utah Test and Training Range for collection and be transferred to NASA’s Johnson Space Flight Center in Houston for storage and distribution to select research teams.

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