Science

NASA just landed on asteroid Bennu. What you need to know about the mission

Updated 21st October 2020 | 11:03 IST

NASA’s Osiris-Rex spacecraft briefly touched down on an outsized asteroid Tuesday to swipe some rocks and mud from its surface to be returned to Earth for study. The event marks a serious first for NASA and a possible boon for science, space exploration and our understanding of the system.

The touch-and-go, or TAG, sample collection of asteroid 101955 Bennu was deemed a hit at around 3:12 p.m. PT. NASA broadcast the TAG manoeuvre survive NASA TV and therefore the agency’s website. you’ll find a Livestream rewatch at the top of this piece. To answer all of your other Bennu questions, read on.

When did the mission begin?
Osiris-Rex as an idea has been alive since a minimum of 2004 when a team of astronomers first proposed the thought to NASA. After quite a decade of development, the spacecraft launched from Cape Canaveral, Florida, on Sept. 8, 2016, atop an Atlas V rocket from United Launch Alliance, a venture of Lockheed Martin and Boeing. The spacecraft spent subsequent 26 months cruising to Bennu, officially arriving on Dec. 3, 2018.

Since then, the mission team has spent nearly two years orbiting the diamond-shaped space rock, surveying and mapping its surface to pick the simplest sampling spot. In recent months, rehearsals led up to the sample collection attempt.

Why Bennu?
Bennu is what’s called a “rubble pile” asteroid, meaning it had been formed within the deep cosmic past when gravity slowly forced together remnants of an ancient collision. The result’s a body shaped something sort of a top with a diameter of around a 3rd of a mile (500 meters) and a surface strewn with large rocks and boulders.

Bennu is assumed to be a window into the solar system’s past: a pristine, carbon-rich body carrying the building blocks of both planets and life. a number of these resources, like water and metals, could even be worth mining at some point within the future to be used on Earth or in space exploration.

The asteroid has one other characteristic that creates it particularly interesting to scientists, and humans generally — it’s an opportunity of impacting Earth within the distant future. On NASA’s list of impact risks, Bennu is ranked No. 2. Current data shows dozens of potential impacts within the final quarter of the 22nd century, although all only have a moment chance of truly coming to pass.

How does TAG work?
For anyone who’s ever dabbled with robots or even entered a robotics competition, the Osiris-Rex mission would appear to be the last word culmination of a young roboticist’s dreams. The touch-and-go sampling procedure may be a complex, high-stakes task that’s been building to a key climactic moment for years. If it succeeds, it’ll play a task in history and our future in space.

The basic plan is that Osiris-Rex will land on Bennu at a rocky landing site dubbed Nightingale. The van-size spacecraft will get to negotiate building-size boulders around the landing area to the touch down on a comparatively clear space that’s only as large as a couple of parking spaces. However, a robotic sampling arm is going to be the sole a part of Osiris-Rex to truly set down on the surface. one among three pressurized nitrogen canisters will fire to fire up a sample of dust and little rocks which will then be caught within the arm’s collector head for safekeeping and return to Earth.

The descent to the surface of Bennu will take roughly four hours, about the time it takes the asteroid to form one full revolution. After this slow approach, the particular TAG sample collection procedure remarkably lasts but 16 seconds.

Preparing for TAG has not gone exactly as planned. Mission organizers initially hoped the surface of Bennu would have many potential landing spots covered primarily with fine materials like sand or gravel. It seems the surface of Bennu is extremely rugged with no real welcoming landing spots.

After spending much of the last two years reevaluating the mission, the team decided to undertake “threading the needle” through the boulder-filled landscape at Nightingale.

It’s all paid off, so far. Osiris-Rex was ready to land, but we cannot know needless to say if it collected a sample until later in October. Fortunately, if the tag was unsuccessful, the spacecraft can try again — it’s equipped with three nitrogen canisters to the fireside and disrupt the surface, which suggests the team gets up to 3 tries at nabbing a sample.

Then what?
Immediately after collecting its sample, Osiris-Rex fires its thrusters to retreat from Bennu. The spacecraft will still lollygag around above Bennu for the remainder of 2020 before finally performing a departure manoeuvre next year and beginning a two-year journey back to Earth.

On Sept. 24, 2023, Osiris-Rex is scheduled to jettison its sample return capsule, which can land within the Utah desert and be recovered for study.

Hasn’t this been done before?
Yes. Japan’s Hayabusa spacecraft successfully returned tiny grains of the asteroid 25143 Itokawa to Earth in 2010. Its successor, Hayabusa-2, fired a special copper bullet at the massive asteroid Ryugu in 2019 then retrieved a number of the shrapnel. That sample is on its way back to Earth.

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