The drama is an achievement only in Japan so far, with the US making its first rift in collecting asteroid samples to return to Earth on Tuesday. Next Tuesday, the OSIRIS-REx (origins, spectral interpretation, resource identification, security, regolith explorer) robotic spacecraft will take a sample of an asteroid called 101955 Bennu, and then bring it home - or, at least, upward of 60 grams of it. Boulders as big as buildings loom over the targeted touchdown zone.
"So for some perspective, the next time you park your vehicle in front of your house or in front of a coffee shop and walk inside, think about the challenge of navigating Osiris-Rex into one of these spots from 200 million miles away", said NASA's deputy project manager Mike Moreau.
After dropping off the 0.5-mile-high (0.75 km-high) orbit around Bennu, the spacecraft takes 4 hours to descend just above the surface.
"OSIRIS-REx [will touch] the surface with a long, three-meter arm with the collection head on the end of it", Jason Dworkin, the OSIRIS-REx project scientist from NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center, told Digital Trends. 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 manoeuvr. The ground controller of spacecraft maker Lockheed Martin near Denver is unable to intervene due to an 18-minute radio delay on one way.
NASA announced Thursday its live stream of OSIRIS-REx's mission as it ventures from orbit departure to sample collection on the asteroid Benu.
The Origins, Spectral Interpretation, Resource Identification, Security-Regolith Explorer mission, better known as OSIRIS-REx, is set to collect samples of an asteroid named Bennu on October 20, at 6:12 p.m. EDT.
Although NASA has recovered comet dust and solar wind particles, it has never attempted to sample one of the almost 1 million known asteroids hiding in our solar system so far. Bennu is considered a "primitive asteroid", which formed something like 4.5 billion years ago and hasn't changed much since then.
NASA explains asteroids are remnants of "the building blocks that formed" our solar system.
There are also selfish reasons to get to know Bennu better. 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. Bennu ranks second on NASA's list of impact risks.
When Osiris-Rex blasted off in 2016 on the more than $800 million mission, scientists envisioned sandy stretches at Bennu. Therefore, the spacecraft is created to take in small pebbles less than 2 centimeters in diameter.
Scientists were amazed by the discovery of massive rocks and blunt gravel when the spacecraft arrived in 2018. 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.
"It's hard to return samples", said Thomas Zurbuchen, director of science missions at NASA. "The COVID made it even harder". Osiris-Rex is equipped with three nitrogen cones to ignite and degrade the surface, which means the team makes three attempts to capture a specimen. But not quite on the scale you might expect if you're picturing a spacecraft hauling a giant space rock. And while it is possible that it falls safely, it may not be able to collect enough debris. If this turns out to be the case, the team can try again at a different location.
With the first try finally here, Lauretta is anxious, nervous, excited "and confident we have done everything possible to ensure a safe sampling".