NASA Chooses Asteroid Landing Zone for OSIRIS-REx Probe

Rodiano Bonacci
Dicembre 15, 2019

After a year scoping out asteroid Bennu's boulder-scattered surface, the team leading NASA's first asteroid sample return mission has officially selected a sample collection site. The spacecraft will depart Bennu in 2021 and is scheduled to return to Earth in September 2023.

Since its arrival in December 2018, the OSIRIS-REx spacecraft has mapped the entire asteroid in order to identify the safest and most accessible spots for the spacecraft to collect a sample.

But Bennu, which is 70 million miles from Earth, has been full of surprises.

Nightingale is located in a northern crater 460 feet (140 meters) wide on the asteroid.

Like the debris at her favourite climbing spot, Bennu has turned out to be a big rubble pile, comprised mainly of rocks and boulders ranging from a few centimetres to tens of metres across. Collecting multiple ounces of material from an asteroid could be an incredible boon for scientists.

In 2016, NASA and the University of Arizona dispatched their OSIRIS-REx spacecraft to the near-Earth asteroid Bennu.

"Of the four candidates, site Nightingale best meets these criteria and, ultimately, best ensures mission success", he continued. Colder temperatures there imply more of this substance that the spacecraft collects may be preserved from once the asteroid first shaped. All four sites are diverse in their location and features. The safe area of Nightingale is about 52 feet (16 meters) across.

Indeed, Nightingale sports lots of dark material, which may well be indicative of organics, Lauretta said during the news conference. As a result, the mission is also examining the asteroid Benu. That should disturb material on the surface, allowing the sampling mechanism to scoop it up. A boulder the size of a building also hovers on the eastern rim of the crater, which could cause the spacecraft harm as it backs away once the sample has been collected. In any situation where a follow-on attempt at Nightingale is not possible, the team will try to collect a sample from Osprey.

Osprey is on the equator in a small crater, showing signs of carbon-rich material and diverse rocks, and it has several areas that could be sampled.

"People were pretty nervous about compressing the 24-hour timeline", said Richard Burns, the Goddard-based OSIRIS-REx project manager, "but the team was well practiced at performing late updates, so we knew we had the right people and the right tools to make it happen".

In January, the spacecraft will begin reconnaissance flights over both sites, which will extend into the spring. Then, it will practice "touch and go" sample collection attempts until it's ready to collect in August.

11, the OSIRIS-REx team should have been preparing to point their spacecraft cameras precisely over the asteroid Bennu to capture high-resolution images of a region known as Osprey.

For example, the crater is just 65 feet (20 meters) or so wide, making it a tight fit for OSIRIS-REx, which spans about 20 feet (6 m), including its solar panels. A direct hit is unlikely, but the data gathered during this mission can help determine the best ways to deflect near-Earth asteroids.

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