NASA has recently managed to successfully land—for a few seconds—a spacecraft on the surface of an asteroid some 320 million kilometers away. It was a historical achievement worthy of praise. Not only that, but the mission also managed to gather materials from the asteroid, collect them safely, and store them within the vehicle. OSIRIS-REx will eventually make its way to Earth, some 340 million kilometers away, and deliver the alien material to scientists on Earth.
After studying, mapping, and photographing asteroid Bennu, the OSIRIS-REx spacecraft was given commands to descend to the asteroid’s surface, extend its robotic arm, and collect surface material scattered on the asteroid.
While this procedure was a success, and the spacecraft performed flawlessly in the process, scientists were unsure whether the spacecraft had gathered enough of the surface materials from the asteroid.
The ultimate goal is to return the samples back to Earth, where scientists will study them in hopes to better understand the formation of our solar system, and how life was seeded on Earth.
Two days after touching down on the surface of asteroid Bennu, the OSIRIS-REx mission team received images confirming that the spacecraft has collected enough material to meet one of its main objectives: to acquire a sample of at least 60 grams from the dangerous surface of the distant space rock.
The spacecraft photographed the Touch-And-Go Sample Acquisition Mechanism (TAGSAM) as it moved in different positions.
By reviewing these images, the OSIRIS-REx team noticed that the header was filled with particles from the asteroid, spilling some of them out.
Scientists suspect this is because the smaller rocks passed through small crevices in the device as a result of the capture of larger rocks.
However, scientists warn that the images snapped by the spacecraft also show that unexpected movement of the spacecraft and the TAGSAM instrument could lead to loss of the collected material.
This is why, in order to preserve it, the mission team has decided to advance the Sample Mass Measurement activity and minimize any acceleration of the spacecraft.
Thereafter, researchers will focus on storing the material in the Sample Return Capsule (SRC), where any loose rocks or particles will be secured in order to be delivered safely to Earth, where scientists will look forward to studying them.
“We are working to keep up with our own success here, and my job is to safely return as large a sample of Bennu as possible,” revealed in a NASA statement Dante Lauretta, OSIRIS-REx principal investigator at the University of Arizona in Tucson.
Lauretta leads the science team and the mission’s science observation planning and data processing.
“The loss of mass is of concern to me, so I’m strongly encouraging the team to stow this precious sample as quickly as possible,” Lauretta added.
Asteroid Bennu is one of the best asteroids to help us understand the formation of the solar system, our planet, and what the solar system’s environment was like billions of years ago.
Scientists believe that asteroid Bennu, officially designated 101955 Bennu, is in fact a piece of a much smaller parent body, either a planetoid or protoplanet. This means that Bennu—which is named after Bennu, the ancient Egyptian mythological bird associated with the Sun, creation, and rebirth—is one of the most ancient space rocks currently orbiting the Sun.
Scientists believe that the asteroid’s mineralogy and chemical nature was likely established during the first 10 million years of the solar system’s formation, which means that the parent body from which Bennu broke off formed around 4.4—4.5 billion years ago.
In addition to its importance as one of the oldest asteroids in the solar system, scientists say that Bennu is a potentially hazardous asteroid and has the second-highest cumulative rating on the so-called Palermo Technical Impact Hazar Scale with a cumulative 1-in-2,700 chance of colliding with Earth in the near future.
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