Spacecraft gathers asteroid samples for first time in NASA history

Eloise Marshall
October 22, 2020

These photos should provide more clues, but scientists still won't determine the amount of material trapped inside the sample complex, which resembles a auto air filter, until Saturday. Otherwise, they will prepare for another attempt in January.

"This wonderful first for NASA demonstrates how an incredible team from across the country came together and persevered through incredible challenges to expand the boundaries of knowledge", says NASA Administrator Jim Bridenstine in an agency release.

NASA plans to preserve at least 75% of the sample at NASA's Johnson Space Flight Center in Houston, so scientists across the world can examine a piece of our solar system's ancient past.

Yesterday at 1:50 PM EDT, OSIRIS-REx fired its thrusters towards Bennu to perform the TAG (touch-and-go) maneuver. On the way, the spacecraft had to execute two precise burns to line up with the sampling site and avoid running into any rocks like the house-sized boulder nicknamed Mount Doom. Then seconds later, the spacecraft slowly backed away from the asteroid and is continuing to drift away until the sample is assessed.

"This was an incredible feat - and today we've advanced both science and engineering and our prospects for future missions to study these mysterious ancient storytellers of the Solar System", said Dr. Thomas Zurbuchen, associate administrator for NASA's Science Mission Directorate. "A piece of primordial rock that has witnessed our solar system's entire history may now be ready to come home for generations of scientific discovery, and we can't wait to see what comes next".

"After more than a decade of planning, the team is overjoyed at the success of today's sampling attempt", Dante Loretta, the mission's lead investigator, said in a statement.

The main mission of the spacecraft was the Touch-and-Go sample collection event, or TAG.

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Asteroids like VP1 frequently visit the planet, zipping by within distances considered "close", at least on an astronomical scale. Typically, astronomers expect anything measuring up to 82ft (25m) to burn up before reaching the ground.


OSIRIS-Rex was created to collect about 60 grams of samples from the site named Nightingale. OSIRIS-REx is NASA's third robotic sample return mission and Lockheed Martin has built and operated all three of those spacecraft.

NASA will now work on downloading the video captured by OSIRIS-REx during the touch and go (TAG) maneuver.

OSIRIS-REx has used its thrusters to push away from Bennu's surface and the mission team will measure the sample by spinning the spacecraft with the collection arm extended. That's about the equivalent of a full-size candy bar.

Once at the site, TAGSAM, the only portion of OSIRIS-REx that actually made contact with Bennu's surface, fired a burst of nitrogen gas to dislodge fine material on the surface, trapping that material inside the device. There is no single, simple way to estimate the size of the sample obtained, so it will take scientists about a week to determine if enough material has been collected.

"Our first indication of whether we were successful in collecting a sample will come on October 21 when we downlink the back-away movie from the spacecraft", Moreau said.

"We're going to be looking at a whole series of images as we descended down to the surface, made contact, fired that gas bottle, and I really want to know how that surface responded", Lauretta said.

The only question is: was a big enough sample collected? One method involves taking pictures of the TAGSAM head with a camera known as SamCam, which is devoted to documenting the sample-collection process and determining whether dust and rocks made it into the collector head. The objective is to collect a sample of at least 60 g. OSIRIS-REx is the third mission in NASA's New Frontiers Program. If they are confident, then, the samples will be stowed on October 30. The spacecraft's collector head is located on an 11-foot-long robotic sampling arm-think an air filter in an older model car-perfect for collecting particulates. After its 2016 launch from Cape Canaveral in Florida, it arrived at Bennu's position in December of 2018.

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