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NASA’s Osiris-Rex about to land on asteroid Bennu: Here’s what is going to occur

Artist’s conception of NASA’s Osiris-Rex spacecraft amassing a pattern from the asteroid Bennu.

NASA/Goddard/University of Arizona

NASA’s Osiris-Rex spacecraft will briefly contact down on a big asteroid subsequent week and seize some rocks and mud from its floor to be returned to Earth for research. The occasion marks a major first for NASA and a possible boon for science, area exploration and our understanding of the photo voltaic system.

The touch-and-go (TAG) pattern assortment of asteroid 101955 Bennu is ready to go down on Tuesday, Oct. 20 at round 3:12 p.m. PT. NASA will broadcast the TAG maneuver reside on NASA TV and the agency’s website beginning at 2 p.m. PT Tuesday. Here’s all the pieces else it is advisable find out about Osiris-Rex, Bennu and the way NASA plans to pickpocket an asteroid.

When did the mission start?

Osiris-Rex as an idea has been in existence since at the least 2004, when a crew of astronomers first proposed the concept to NASA. After greater than a decade of growth, the spacecraft launched from Cape Canaveral, Florida on Sept. 8, 2016, atop an Atlas V rocket from United Launch Alliance, a three way partnership of Lockheed Martin and Boeing. The spacecraft spent the subsequent 26 months cruising to Bennu, formally arriving on Dec. 3, 2018.

Since then, the mission crew has spent practically two years orbiting the diamond-shaped area rock, surveying and mapping its floor to pick out the perfect sampling spot. In current months, rehearsals have begun forward of the upcoming pattern assortment try, and now the crew says it is able to play TAG with Bennu.

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Why Bennu?

Bennu is what’s referred to as a “rubble pile” asteroid, which means it was shaped within the deep cosmic previous when gravity slowly pressured collectively remnants of an historical collision. The result’s a physique formed one thing like a spinning prime with a diameter of round a 3rd of a mile (500 meters) and a floor strewn with giant rocks and boulders. 

Bennu is regarded as a window into the photo voltaic system’s previous: a pristine, carbon-rich physique carrying the constructing blocks of each planets and life. Some of those sources, corresponding to water and metals, is also value mining in some unspecified time in the future sooner or later to be used on Earth or in area exploration. 

The asteroid has one different attribute that makes it significantly fascinating to scientists, and people generally — it has an opportunity of impacting Earth within the distant future. On NASA’s list of impact risks, Bennu is ranked No. 2. Current information exhibits dozens of potential impacts within the ultimate quarter of the 22nd century, though all solely have a minute probability of truly coming to cross. 

How will TAG work?

For anybody who’s ever dabbled with robots or perhaps even entered a robotics competitors, the Osiris-Rex mission would appear to be the final word fruits of a younger roboticist’s goals. The touch-and-go sampling process is a posh, high-stakes process that is been constructing to a key climactic second for years. If it succeeds, it’ll play a task in historical past and our future in area. 

The primary plan is that Osiris-Rex will contact down on Bennu at a rocky landing site dubbed Nightingale. The van-size spacecraft might want to negotiate building-size boulders across the touchdown space to the touch down on a comparatively clear area that is solely as giant as a couple of parking areas. However, a robotic sampling arm would be the solely a part of Osiris-Rex to truly set down on the floor. One of three pressurized nitrogen canisters will fireplace to fire up a pattern of mud and small rocks that may then be caught within the arm’s collector head for secure maintaining and return to Earth. 

The descent to the floor of Bennu will take roughly 4 hours, in regards to the time it takes the asteroid to make one full revolution. After this sluggish method, the precise TAG pattern assortment process remarkably lasts lower than 16 seconds. 

Preparing for TAG has not gone precisely as deliberate. Mission organizers initially hoped the floor of Bennu would have loads of potential touchdown spots lined primarily with nice supplies akin to sand or gravel. It seems the floor of Bennu is extraordinarily rugged with no actual welcoming touchdown spots. 

After spending a lot of the final two years reevaluating the mission, the crew determined to strive “threading the needle” by the boulder-filled panorama at Nightingale and a pair different backup pattern websites. It’s nonetheless doable the floor will show to be too rocky to get a superb pattern. If this seems to be the case, the crew might choose to strive once more at a distinct web site. Osiris-Rex is supplied with three nitrogen canisters to fireside and disrupt the floor, which suggests the crew will get as much as three tries at nabbing a pattern. 

Then what?

Immediately after amassing its pattern, Osiris-Rex will fireplace its thrusters to again away from Bennu. The spacecraft will proceed to hold round above Bennu for the remainder of 2020 earlier than lastly performing a departure maneuver subsequent yr and starting a two-year journey again to Earth. 

On Sept. 24, 2023, Osiris-Rex is scheduled to jettison its pattern return capsule, which is able to land within the Utah desert and be recovered for research. 

Hasn’t this been executed earlier than?

Yes. Japan’s Hayabusa spacecraft efficiently returned tiny grains of the asteroid 25143 Itokawa to Earth in 2010. Its successor, Hayabusa-2, efficiently fired a special copper bullet at the large asteroid Ryugu in 2019 after which retrieved among the shrapnel. That pattern is at the moment on its approach again to Earth.  

How can I watch? 

Follow NASA’s livestream, which kicks off Tuesday at 2 p.m. PT. You may also comply with the Osiris-Rex Twitter feed to get the newest updates. 

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