A NASA spacecraft has efficiently landed briefly on an asteroid earlier than taking off once more – hopefully grabbing some items of the asteroid within the course of.
Right now at 6.10 P.M. Jap Time, the van-sized OSIRIS-REx despatched a sign that it had reached the floor of the asteroid, touching its floor for just some seconds. By firing a puff of gasoline into the floor, scientists at the moment are hoping the arm has scooped materials from the asteroid – known as Bennu – able to return to Earth.
“I can not consider we really pulled this off,” Dante Lauretta from the College of Arizona, the lead on the mission, mentioned shortly after the touchdown. “That is historical past. It is wonderful.”
Whereas the touchdown really occurred 18 minutes earlier, the spacecraft and asteroid’s distance of 334 million kilometers from Earth meant the group needed to await the sign to reach to verify the landing was profitable.
Now the group will probably be anxiously ready for the spacecraft to ship again photographs and to see how a lot pattern the spacecraft managed to seize from the floor of the asteroid. If it is deemed to be sufficient, they’ll start to plan for the journey dwelling.
OSIRIS-REx was launched in 2016, on a mission to the asteroid Bennu – which has an identical orbit to Earth, albeit barely bigger. The objective is to seize samples from the asteroid and return them to Earth, the primary asteroid pattern return mission in NASA’s historical past.
It’s thought asteroids like Bennu might have delivered the constructing blocks of life to Earth and different worlds. Thus, learning samples from this asteroid again on Earth might have important implications for our personal origins, maybe serving to to clarify how life on Earth started.
After the spacecraft reached the asteroid in 2018, the mission’s group started learning its floor, in search of a touchdown spot. They settled on a comparatively flat space known as Nightingale, simply ten meters throughout, equal to some parking areas.
Following a few rehearsals, as we speak was set because the date to aim really touchdown on the asteroid. 4 and a half hours previous to the touchdown, the spacecraft was commanded to autonomously descend in the direction of the floor.
After about 4 hours, the spacecraft fired its thrusters in a “checkpoint burn”, 125 meters above the floor, starting its descent. About 11 minutes later it carried out a “checkpoint burn” lowering its pace to a relative velocity of simply ten centimeters per second.
Lastly, the spacecraft’s prolonged TAGSAM (Contact-and-Go Pattern Acquisition Mechanism) arm contacted the floor, with a spring mechanism bringing the spacecraft to a halt. Nitrogen canisters then fired gasoline into the floor, hopefully kicking materials up into the top of the arm, the place it ought to be captured in its rim.
The spring mechanism then pushed the spacecraft away from the floor earlier than its thrusters fired – dodging a harmful massive close by boulder known as Mount Doom – to take the spacecraft as much as a secure distance away from the asteroid.
Right here, inside a number of days, the group will spin the spacecraft with its TAGSAM arm prolonged. By measuring the inertia of the spacecraft on this spin, they’ll be capable to work out how a lot pattern the spacecraft has collected from the floor.
The group expect wherever from 60 grams as much as two kilograms – roughly the load of a brick. Any much less, and so they could return to a second deliberate touchdown website known as Osprey later this 12 months to aim one other pattern seize.
If the quantity of pattern is deemed to be sufficient, nonetheless, the spacecraft will go away Bennu in March 2021. It can then make a two-year voyage dwelling, finally dropping a capsule containing the samples into our ambiance in September 2023, which can parachute to a touchdown within the Utah desert.
For NASA, this mission is a whole first; it has by no means tried to return materials from an asteroid to Earth, though it has returned materials from a comet’s tail. It’s also the biggest pattern return mission in historical past past missions to the Moon.
Nonetheless, it’s not the primary such asteroid mission. Two Japanese spacecraft have achieved the feat earlier than, Hayabusa1 in 2010, which returned only one millionth of a gram from the asteroid Itokawa, and Hayabusa2, anticipated to return as much as a gram when it returns in December this 12 months.
Now the OSIRIS-REx group face an anxious wait to see how a lot pattern they’ve scooped up. If it’s sufficient, they’ll be capable to breathe a sigh of aid and put together for the journey dwelling. If not, they’ll quickly want to start out planning for one more nerve-wracking descent to the floor of Bennu.