NASA Touched down on Asteroid Bennu and Collected Samples

NASA scientists are eager to get their hands on the dust and pebbles.
Fabienne Lang
NASA Osiris-REx Touch-And-GoNASA/Goddard/University of Arizona

NASA is bringing back souvenirs from its moment on the asteroid Bennu. The space agency's OSIRIS-REx spacecraft successfully unleashed its robotic arm to collect a sample of the asteroid's surface yesterday. 

This sample will be brought back to Earth in 2023. It consists of between two ounces and two kilograms of dust and pebbles, and NASA scientists are eager to get their hands on it to find out any further information about Bennu and solar systems in general. 

The mission moved seamlessly and NASA Administrator, Jim Bridenstine, praised the team, "Our industry, academic, and international partners have made it possible to hold a piece of the most ancient solar system in our hands."


Touching an asteroid

The ancient asteroid that OSIRIS-REx touched on Tuesday night sits over 200 million miles (321 million kilometers) away from Earth. By collecting samples from it, scientists aim to learn more about early solar systems. 

Tuesday's event is called Touch-And-Go, or TAG, and the mission included unfurling its 11-foot (3.35 meter) sampling arm known as Touch-And-Go Sample Acquisition Mechanism  (TAGSAM). It took four hours for OSIRIS-REx and TAGSAM to get close enough to Bennu, where it collected the sample from a site called "Nightingale." The site is the size of a small parking lot and is one of the few spots on the asteroid that's not covered in boulders.

Thomas Zurbuchen, associate administrator for NASA’s Science Mission Directorate, explained why this is such a monumental moment, "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."

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NASA Touched down on Asteroid Bennu and Collected Samples
Touch-And-Go mechanism. Source: NASA/Goddard/University of Arizona

Lori Glaze, NASA's Planetary Science Division director, called the maneuver "historic," and Osiris-REx's deputy project manager at NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center said it was "hard to put into words how exciting it was."

The sample won't be returning to Earth until 2023, but the team will be able to test whether or not it's a good sample first. The team will use several techniques to identify and measure the sample remotely today, October 21st, otherwise, the mission will have to try again.


"After over a decade of planning, the team is overjoyed at the success of today’s sampling attempt," said Dante Lauretta, OSIRIS-REx principal investigator at the University of Arizona in Tucson.

"Even though we have some work ahead of us to determine the outcome of the event – the successful contact, the TAGSAM gas firing, and back-away from Bennu are major accomplishments for the team. I look forward to analyzing the data to determine the mass of sample collected," Lauretta continued.

The work isn't nearly over for NASA and the team, but it's a fantastic moment for space exploration.

The mission stands for Origins, Spectral Interpretation, Resource Identification, Security-Regolith Explorer, or OSIRIS-REx, and it launched in 2016. The spacecraft and its cameras have been collecting information about Bennu, which ended up finding out which was the best site to carry out the TAG mission safely.

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