Bennu, which is more than 200 million miles away from the Earth and as tall as the Empire State Building, has attracted scientific attention due to the presence of carbon-bearing materials - a key building block of life - on the asteroid's surface.
The goal was to collect at least 1.7 ounces of fine-grained material, but the spacecraft can carry up to 4.4 pounds, Heather Enos, OSIRIS-REx deputy principal investigator at the University of Arizona said. "The spacecraft did everything it was supposed to do". "If all goes well, this sample will be studied by scientists for generations to come".
By the time flight controllers near Denver hear back from Osiris-Rex, around 18 minutes will have passed since it made surface contact, as it takes this much time for radio signals to travel from Bennu to Earth.
While that is the endgame, OSIRIS-REx has already been working hard. "Before it arrives, we'll be preparing in many ways, such as holding sample return capsule retrieval and disassembly rehearsals to the make sure the actual event goes as smoothly as possible and the sample is protected".
The sample won't be returning to Earth until 2023, but the team will be able to test whether or not it's a good sample first.
The OSIRIS-REx team took it slow and steady, sending commands that took the spacecraft through a four-hour descent sequence.
Image of the NASA space explorer OSIRIS-REx touching down on the asteroid Bennu.
After two years of waiting for the flawless opportunity, NASA on Tuesday will try to collect a sample from an asteroid for the first time.
The coronavirus pandemic has caused a delay of two months.
The Canadian Space Agency, which contributed the OSIRIS-REx Laser Altimeter (OLA) instrument to the mission, will also be receiving some of the Bennu sample as part of this worldwide partnership.
From here, OSIRIS-Rex will pull away from the asteroid, redeploy its solar panels as well as a high-gain antenna to transmit initial images and data from the operation then begin a almost three year long trek back to Earth where the collection capsule is expected to land at the Utah Test and Training Range in 2023.
After determining that the coast was clear, Osiris-Rex closed in the last few yards for sampling. It will attempt to capture at least 60 grams of rocks and dust from the asteroid by pumping a shot of compressed nitrogen gas onto the surface, which will stir up particles that will then be collected by a sampler. It took about two years to arrive within 12.4 miles of Bennu.
Thomas Zurbuchen, director of science missions at NASA, likened Bennu to Rosetta Stone: "Something tells the history of our entire planet and our solar system over the past billions of years".
Another benefit: Bennu has a slight chance of hitting the ground late in the next century, although not as a life terminator. The more scientists know about the paths and properties of potentially unsafe space rocks like this one, the better. Otherwise, a second sample collection attempt will be made on January 12. "The spacecraft will then divert away from Earth, going into orbit around the sun, and the canister will descend to the atmosphere and on a parachute land in the Utah desert just before 9:00 a.m. Mountain Daylight Time on Sunday, Sept. 24, 2023".
All of that and more was justification for the mission and the source of hope for what it might produce, but Tuesday was a day for NASA and the mission team to celebrate in COVID-19 masks something big and never done before.
All spacecraft telemetry data indicates the TAG event executed as expected, NASA said.