Osiris Rex spacecraft orbiting asteroid Bennu

Asteroid Bennu: OSIRIS-Rex Spacecraft’s Exciting Story Will Make You Impressed

Artist's concept of the OSIRIS-REx spacecraft collecting a sample from asteroid 1999 RQ36.
Artist’s concept of the OSIRIS-REx spacecraft collecting a sample from asteroid 1999 RQ36.
Credits – NASA. Source.

OSIRIS-Rex lands on the asteroid

NASA’s OSIRIS-Rex spacecraft successfully touched the asteroid Bennu on October 20th to collect samples that will be returned to the Earth in 2023. It was launched from Cape Canaveral Air Force Station, Florida, USA on 8 September 2016. It arrived at the asteroid on 3 December 2018 and began orbiting the asteroid on 31 December 2018. The asteroid is currently 321 million kilometers away from us. This is the first touch-down on an asteroid for NASA.


Returning samples from the asteroid

The samples help scientists study the early solar system. The spacecraft is programmed to attempt to capture at least 60 grams of samples. It will be the largest sample returned from space since the Apollo program.

Preliminary data showed that the sample collection event went as planned. More details will come once all the data from the event are downlinked to Earth. The sample collection event is named “Touch-And-Go” (TAG).

Asteroid bennu
Asteroid Bennu

The sample collection story

The spacecraft fired its thrusters at 1:50 PM EDT to take it out of its orbit around the asteroid. It then extended its 11-foot sampling arm and transited across the asteroid while descending 805 meters towards the surface.

At an altitude of 125 meters, after a four-hour descent, the spacecraft fired its thrusters which were called the “Checkpoint burn”. Ten minutes later, the spacecraft fired its thrusters again to slow its descent and match the asteroid’s rotation at the time of contact. This burn was called the “Matchpoint burn”.  


“Nightingale”

Then it coasted for about 11 minutes and touched down in a clear spot in a crater on the asteroid’s Northern hemisphere. The sample collection site is named “Nightingale”. After the spacecraft successfully touched down, it fired a burst of Nitrogen gas in order to stir up dust and pebbles on its surface, which can be collected.

The Touch-And-Go maneuver happened automatically with the instructions pre-programmed from Earth. The engineers used several techniques to identify and measure the sample remotely.


Returning samples back to Earth

After the sample is collected, mission control commanded the spacecraft to begin stowing the samples to begin its journey back to Earth. This journey began on 7 April 2021. On 10 May 2021, the spacecraft finally left the asteroid and is on a return journey to the Earth.

At this stage, the asteroid was properly aligned with the Earth for the most fuel-efficient return flight. If the sample collection failed, they had prepared for another attempt in January 2021 at a backup landing site called “Osprey” which is near the asteroid’s equator. The spacecraft is scheduled to return to Earth on 24 September 2023, where the samples will return via parachute in the West Desert in Utah, USA.


But the story doesn’t end here!

NASA has extended this mission. After the sample return to the Earth, the spacecraft will target to visit the Near-Earth Asteroid and Potentially Hazardous Object (PHO) 99942 Apophis. It will make similar maneuvers and study this space object.

Do you think the sample return to Earth will happen successfully? Comment below.


References

1. NASA’s OSIRIS-Rex Spacecraft Successfully Touches Asteroid. (2020, October 20). Retrieved from https://www.nasa.gov/press-release/nasa-s-osiris-rex-spacecraft-successfully-touches-asteroid

2. NASA’s OSIRIS-REx Asteroid Sample Return Mission. (2020, October 21). Preliminary data showed that today’s sample collection event went as planned. More details to come once all the data from the event are downlinked to Earth. Thanks, everybody, for following along! Next stop: Earth 2023! [Facebook update]. Retrieved from https://www.facebook.com/160193164093515/posts/3471816626264469/

3. NASA – National Aeronautics and Space Administration. (2020, October 21). Today, NASA’s OSIRIS-REx Asteroid Sample Return Mission will attempt to capture at least 2 oz. (60 grams) of material from asteroid Bennu for return to Earth in 2023. It will be the largest sample returned from space since the Apollo program. Live coverage will begin at 5 p.m. EDT: www.nasa.gov/live Here’s a close-up look at sample collection site “Nightingale:” [Facebook update]. Retrieved from https://www.facebook.com/54971236771/posts/10158682686996772/


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