After a four-year journey, NASA’s robotic spacecraft Osiris-Rex will descend on Tuesday to the rock-strewn surface of asteroid Bennu, landing for seconds to collect rock and dust samples in a precision operation. 330 million kilometers away. Earth.
Last year, Japan managed with its Hayabusa2 probe to collect dust from another asteroid, Ryugu, and is now on its way home.
With Osiris-Rex, NASA hopes to collect a much larger sample – at least 60 grams – that it hopes will reveal the original solar system ingredients.
The spacecraft, the size of a large pickup truck, is currently in position about a kilometer above Bennu, which is 490 meters (1,600 feet) in diameter.
???? Bennu asteroid
Opt for the start in orbit! Our @OSIRISREx the spacecraft leaves the orbit of the asteroid before descending to the surface for today’s sample collection attempt.
– NASA (@NASA) October 20, 2020
Engineers from NASA and Lockheed Martin sent him his last orders on Tuesday to perform the sampling operation, which will be fully automated.
“We are not able to manipulate the spacecraft in real time,” said Kenneth Getzandanner, flight dynamics manager for the mission.
At this distance, it will take about 18.5 minutes for the signals to flow between them.
The first confirmation signal for the operation will arrive on Earth at 6:12 p.m. Eastern Time (10:12 p.m. GMT) on Tuesday.
The first images will reach us on Wednesday, but we will have to wait until Saturday to find out if Osiris-Rex has managed to collect the desired amount of dust.
“It’s not easy to move around a small body,” said Heather Enos, the project’s deputy principal investigator, who spent 12 years on the mission preparing for this moment.
It’ll all boil down to 16 critical seconds of contact, during which an arm will reach the surface and blow up the surface with compressed nitrogen, then collect samples two centimeters in diameter or less.
“We can’t actually land on the surface of Bennu, so we’ll only kiss the surface,” added Beth Buck of Lockheed Martin.
The interest in analyzing the composition of the asteroids in the solar system is that they are made of the same materials that formed the planets.
It is “almost a Rosetta Stone, something that is out there and tells the story of our entire Earth, of the solar system over the past billions of years,” NASA Chief Scientist said , Thomas Zurbuchen.
The samples will return to Earth on September 24, 2023, with a planned landing in the Utah desert.
Earth labs will be able to perform much more powerful analyzes of their physical and chemical characteristics, said Lori Glaze, director of NASA’s planetary science division.
Not all samples will be analyzed immediately, like those brought back from the Moon by the Apollo astronauts, which NASA is still opening 50 years later.
The samples “will also allow our future planetary scientists to ask questions that we can’t even think of today using analysis techniques not yet invented,” Glaze said.
The team estimates the odds of a last minute cancellation to be around 6%.
Osiris-Rex’s approach can be broken down into three phases.
At approximately 1:50 p.m. (5:50 p.m. GMT), it will trigger its thrusters to line up with the correct side of the asteroid at a distance of only 100 meters.
A second maneuver will turn the probe towards the surface and lower it to 50 meters. The last maneuver will slow him down to 10 centimeters per second.
Five meters above the ground, an on-board automatic system can cancel the operation if it detects rocks that are too large at the point of contact.
That’s because Bennu isn’t the smooth asteroid, covered with a harmless “beach” of fine sand, that NASA hoped.
NASA chose this particular asteroid because it is conveniently close and also ancient: Scientists have calculated that it was formed during the first 10 million years of our solar system’s history, ago 4.5 billion years old.
After Osiris-Rex reached the rock in late 2018, scientists were surprised to receive photographs showing it was covered in pebbles and boulders sometimes 30 meters high.
They have since mapped the asteroid to centimeter resolution and chosen the least risky landing site: it’s called Nightingale Crater, 25 meters (80 feet) wide, with a target area of just eight meters (26 feet). ) in diameter for the “kiss”. “
(This story was not edited by GalacticGaming staff and is auto-generated from a syndicated feed.)