NASA to attempt descent onto 'treacherous' asteroid this week

Rodiano Bonacci
Ottobre 19, 2020

After nearly two years circling an ancient asteroid hundreds of millions of kilometres away, a NASA spacecraft this week will attempt to descend to the treacherous, boulder-packed surface and snatch a handful of rubble.

Brimming with names inspired by Egyptian mythology, the Osiris-Rex mission is looking to bring back at least 60 grams worth of asteroid Bennu, the biggest otherworldly haul from beyond the moon. The van-sized spacecraft is just as large as a transparent space that would need to interact with building-sized boulders around the landing area to touch a relatively clean space.

"So from some perspective, the next time you park your auto in front of your house or in front of a coffee shop and walk inside, think about the challenge of guiding Osiris-Rex to one of these places 200 million miles away", said NASA Deputy Project Manager Mike Morey.

Once it drops out of its half-mile-high (0.75 km-high) orbit around Bennu, the spacecraft will take a deliberate four hours to make it all the way down, to just above the surface. Video filmed on Friday shows hazy and polluted skies.

Asteroid's Touch and Go (TAG) sample collection 101955 Bennu It will be down on Tuesday, October 20th at around 3:12pm Pacific Time. Its actual contact with this ancient object would last under five seconds.

Programmed in advance, the spacecraft will operate autonomously during the unprecedented touch-and-go manoeuvre. Ground controllers could not interfere with Lockheed Martin, the spacecraft builder near Denver, as there was an 18-minute lag in radio communications in every way.

"OSIRIS-REx is now ready to take a sample of this ancient relic of our solar system and bring its stories and secrets home to Earth", Todd explained. The discovery has made its planned "touch and go" mission considerably more challenging, since the spacecraft has a higher chance of collision and the device attached to the arm meant to retrieve the rocks and dust may not sit properly on the surface to collect the samples. Meanwhile, Japan expects to receive samples from the asteroid Ryuku in December - up to a maximum of milligrams - 10 years after bringing the glass from the asteroid Idokawa.

In layman's terms, the samples gathered from Bennu may provide scientists with a better understanding as to how life was first formed on Earth. It is possible that the surface turns out to be too rocky to get a good sample. The asteroid is about as tall as the Empire State Building and could potentially threaten Earth late in the next century, with a one-in-2,700 chance of impacting the planet during one of its close approaches.

OSIRIS-REx is created to be navigated in an area on Bennu of almost 2,000 square feet, roughly the size of a 100-space parking lot, says NASA.

Bennu has been mostly undisturbed for billions of years, so Bennu could be made of material that contains molecules that were present when life on Earth first formed, NASA says.

With plenty of ways to participate and learn more about the OSIRIS-REx mission, one can also opt to join in the social media activities to start Monday, Oct. 19 - a day before the spacecraft's actual descent to Bennu. So the spacecraft was created to ingest small pebbles less than 2 centimetres across. However, the robotic sampling arm will be the only part the Osiris-Rex can actually put down on the surface. And pebbles were occasionally seen shooting off the asteroid, falling back and sometimes ricocheting off again in a cosmic game of ping-pong. Nightingale Crater, the prime target, appears to have the biggest abundance of fine grains, but boulders still abound, including one dubbed Mount Doom.

On September 24, 2023, Osiris-Rex will land in the Utah desert to dispose of sample return capsules that will be recovered for research. Osiris-Rex is equipped with three nitrogen canisters that fire and destroy surfaces. If that were the case, the spacecraft would automatically retract to a height of 16 feet and try again.

Finally on the first try here, Loretta is anxious, nervous, excited, and believes that "we have done everything we can to ensure a safe model".

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