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NASA's OSIRIS-REx spacecraft touches the asteroid Bennu in a historic try to return samples

A rendering of the OSIRIS-REx spacecraft.

NASA

A NASA spacecraft touched the surface of the asteroid Bennu on Tuesday in a mission aimed at returning rocky fragments back to Earth for investigation in 2023.

"Touchdown explained," NASA said on a webcast from the mission's control center. "The sampling is carried out."

The mission marks the first time NASA has attempted to return material from an asteroid, an accomplishment only Japan has previously accomplished, but in smaller quantities. While NASA confirmed that the spacecraft touched the asteroid, the space agency won't know for several hours whether it successfully collected material.

NASA's spacecraft named OSIRIS-REx – an acronym for Origins, Spectral Interpretation, Resource Identification, Security, Regolith Explorer – is the culmination of years of work. The mission started in September 2016 at a total cost of around $ 1 billion.

"Everything I was working on focused on that day and got the spaceship to contact the asteroid and collect the sample," said Dr. Dante Lauretta, professor of planetary science and cosmochemistry at the University of Arizona and head of the mission, told CNBC.

The OSIRIS-REx spacecraft itself is about the size of a large delivery truck: 20 feet long, 9 feet wide, 10 feet high, with an 11-foot long arm that reaches down to grab material in a maneuver that NASA does referred to as "marking" the asteroid. The spaceship was built by Lockheed Martin's space department.

"What space missions can discover is directly applicable to [other NASA efforts such as] lunar exploration," Ari Vogel, director of space exploration at Lockheed Martin, told CNBC.

Mark the asteroid

An image of the asteroid Bennu captured by NASA's OSIRIS REx spacecraft.

NASA

OSIRIS-REx is more than 200 million miles from Earth and arrived in Bennu in December 2018 after a two-year journey. NASA spent most of 2019 surveying Bennu with the instruments on board the spacecraft to further inform his tag experiment. NASA announced in December 2019 that OSIRIS-REx would target a location called Nightingale where the material collection took place on Tuesday.

Bennu is "the most astronomically characterized asteroid in history," said Lauretta. Like Earth, the asteroid is in orbit around the sun. At the time of the experiment, Bennu was on the opposite side of the Sun, which means there is a communication delay of about 19 minutes between Lockheed Martin's mission control in Colorado and the spaceship at the asteroid.

The OSIRIS-REx spacecraft will be tested prior to launch in 2016.

NASA

"When we talk to the spaceship, we have these giant antennas all over the world sending a signal that goes past the sun and then another distance across the solar system, and then it reaches the spaceship," Lauretta said.

Lauretta is responsible for the mission's scientific objectives and primarily selects the location where the materials will be collected.

"After making this selection, I gave it to the engineering team and the spacecraft team that Lockheed Martin is responsible for," said Lauretta.

The sample collection takes four and a half hours, with the spaceship performing several maneuvers to slowly approach the surface of the asteroid. The OSIRIS-REx operations team confirmed that the spacecraft successfully touched the surface, sampled, and then withdrawn from the asteroid with its on-board spacecraft engines.

OSIRIS-REx aimed to collect between two ounces and five pounds of Bennus material to return to Earth. It is the largest such return on samples from space since the Apollo lunar missions.

The objectives of the mission

NASA hopes that the samples collected will include new scientific discoveries in addition to the benefits of new technologies developed by the mission.

"We believe that objects like Bennu brought water and organic matter to the surface of the earth," said Lauretta. "When we chose Banu, we were hoping it would, and we checked both with the [imaging] campaign."

Second, the OSIRIS-REx team chose Bennu for planetary defense purposes. While it is only one of more than 500,000 known asteroids in the solar system, Bennu has a "high probability of hitting Earth in the late 22nd century". That may be more than 150 years away, but NASA now wanted to study the asteroid to see how the agency could possibly keep it from crashing to Earth.

"Understanding these piles of debris and how their orbits are changing is very helpful for possible mitigation missions that we need to undertake in the future," said Vogel. "The Hollywood version of planting a bomb on an asteroid and blowing it up is not going to work based on what we discovered with Bennu."

Lauretta added that, with "mainly American taxpayers paying for this mission," he takes the responsibility of finding valuable new knowledge "very seriously" – a consideration that certainly includes an asteroid that intersects Earth.

"It's a relatively large asteroid so it would ruin your day," said Lauretta. "Asteroids are nature's way of asking," How's your space program going? "Because one day humanity may have to complete a mission to keep this asteroid or another asteroid from meeting us. We have developed an amazing array of technologies to get to an asteroid, and all kinds of precision maneuvers to perform around that asteroid and characterize it in detail … all of these will be relevant to any future type of asteroid impact mitigation mission. "

Both Lauretta and Vogel discussed two future applications of OSIRIS-REx technology: resource exploitation in space, also known as in situ resource exploitation, and asteroid mining.

"In situ resource use is a big goal. If we go further and further in space we cannot take everything we need with us. In situ resource use allows us to go further as we can use local materials to keep us going even further, "said Vogel.

While Vogel believes that asteroid mining is currently "not quite complete," he noted that there are several aspects of the mission that could be used in the future – a fact that Lauretta further emphasized.

"We view these near-Earth asteroids as potential economic resources," said Lauretta. "It's an expensive operation, but any mining operation is expensive to run. And these are natural resources that are accessible in the solar system.

"In a way, we are the prospectors," added Lauretta. "We're out there checking the composition of these materials and bringing them back. It's like the old geologists poking around the mountains and bringing the spec samples back to the lab to see if it's worth mining or not. ""

Before touching down, Lauretta said the OSIRIS-REx team had created "a very detailed map of the asteroid" to help them find the correct target point. Vogel explained that the spacecraft did not technically land on the asteroid for several reasons. First and foremost, Vogel said Bennu has his own microgravity environments, so "any kind of force can severely perturb the asteroid's orbit" and make it "really difficult" to pilot the spaceship. For this reason, the teams developed the "touch-and-go maneuver" so that the spaceship only gently touches the asteroid before it retreats.

To make this possible, Lockheed Martin and NASA developed a technology called Natural Feature Tracking. It is a precise autonomous guidance system that guides the spaceship onto a planet's surface.

"We are the first mission to use this," said Lauretta.

The backup plan

Vogel noted that "the days after the day will be almost as exciting," because the OSIRIS-REx spaceship then forwards whether it has collected enough material to go back. If not, the spacecraft has fuel for two more attempts at conquest, which would take a few months to coordinate.

The "key decision point" will be on October 30th, Lauretta said, as the team "will then make the decision whether we have enough rehearsal and we succeeded".

The spacecraft is scheduled to leave Bennu early next year and return to Earth, where it is expected to arrive in September 2023.

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