NASA's OSIRIS-Rex successfully collects samples from asteroid Bennu

Approaching Bennu

Approaching Bennu

In a similar effort, Japan's space agency, which previous year collected the first-ever subsurface samples from an asteroid around 200 million miles away, should see the material arrive back on Earth in December 2020. Since the test vehicle Osiris Rex is 29 million kilometres away from the Earth, the signal sent from NASA takes 16 minutes to reach there.

The US mission follows a Japanese-run one called Hayabusa2, which is due to return to Earth in December carrying samples collected from the 4.5 billion-year-old asteroid, Ryugu. Celebrating with the operations team was NASA's Marshall Space Flight Center in Huntsville, Ala., which manages NASA's New Frontiers Program of missions like OSIRIS-REx with medium price tags and high-science-return possibilities. It is also expected to take about 10 days to know how much material was retrieved.

OSIRIS-REx engineers and scientists will use several techniques to identify and measure the sample remotely. It extended the shoulder, then elbow, then wrist of its 11-foot (3.35-meter) sampling arm, known as the Touch-And-Go Sample Acquisition Mechanism (TAGSAM), and transited across Bennu while descending about a half-mile (805 meters) toward the surface.

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.

On Tuesday, the spacecraft, which is the size of a 15-passenger van, touched down on Bennu's surface briefly by extending its robotic arm to a rocky site surrounded by building-sized boulders, according to NASA. As the rocket drew nearer and afterward went through two years circling and looking over Bennu, it turned out to be clear this small world is not the same as what researchers anticipated.

Bennu celebration

The plan called for Osiris-Rex to shoot out pressurised nitrogen gas to stir up the surface, then suck up any loose pebbles or dust. This could potentially offer a window into the early solar system as it was first taking shape billions of years ago and offer more clues to what could have helped seed life on Earth. Bennu itself has an ever-so-slight, 1-in-2,700 chance of colliding with Earth sometime between the year 2175 and 2199.

"This is NASA's first historic mission to return a planet, and it's hard", Thomas Zurbuchen, associate manager of NASA's Science Mission Directorate, told a news conference Monday.

Osiris-Rex can make up to three touch-and-go maneuvers in case one comes up short.

Scientists could also learn more about the types of resources that could be extracted from asteroids, as well as the best strategies for diverting potentially hazardous space rocks. They'll do the work inside a temporary clean room set up in a nearby aircraft hangar, just as ARES did after the Stardust comet sample capsule successfully landed in 2006. Otherwise, they will prepare for another attempt in January.

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. "This is definitely the main event of the mission at the moment", said Lucy Lim, a NASA scientist.

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