NASA’s Osiris-Rex spacecraft is about to land on asteroid Bennu: Everything you need to know

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

NASA/Goddard/College 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 serious first for NASA and a possible boon for science, house 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. This is all the things you should learn 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 no less than 2004, when a workforce of astronomers first proposed the concept to NASA. After greater than a decade of improvement, 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 workforce has spent practically two years orbiting the diamond-shaped house rock, surveying and mapping its floor to pick out one of the best sampling spot. In current months, rehearsals have begun forward of the upcoming pattern assortment try, and now the workforce says it is able to play TAG with Bennu.

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Why Bennu?

Bennu is what’s known as a “rubble pile” asteroid, which means it was fashioned within the deep cosmic previous when gravity slowly pressured collectively remnants of an historic 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 massive rocks and boulders. 

Bennu is considered a window into the photo voltaic system’s previous: a pristine, carbon-rich physique carrying the constructing blocks of each planets and life. A few of these assets, akin to water and metals, may be value mining sooner or later sooner or later, to be used on Earth or in house exploration. 

The asteroid has one different attribute that makes it significantly fascinating to scientists, and people basically — it has an opportunity of impacting Earth within the distant future. On NASA’s list of impact risks, Bennu is ranked No. 2. Present knowledge reveals dozens of potential impacts within the closing quarter of the 22nd century, though all solely have a minute probability of really coming to go. 

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 end result of a younger roboticist’s desires. The touch-and-go sampling process is a posh, high-stakes job that is been constructing to a key climactic second for years. If it succeeds, it can play a task in historical past and our future in house. 

The fundamental 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 house that is solely as massive as a number of parking areas. Nevertheless, a robotic sampling arm would be the solely a part of Osiris-Rex to really set down on the floor. One in every of three pressurized nitrogen canisters will hearth to fire up a pattern of mud and small rocks that may then be caught within the arm’s collector head for secure conserving 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 gradual strategy, the precise TAG pattern assortment process remarkably lasts lower than 16 seconds. 

Getting ready 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 superb 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 workforce determined to strive “threading the needle” by way of the boulder-filled panorama at Nightingale and a pair different backup pattern websites. It is nonetheless doable the floor will show to be too rocky to get an excellent pattern. If this seems to be the case, the workforce might choose to strive once more at a unique website. Osiris-Rex is supplied with three nitrogen canisters to fireside and disrupt the floor, which suggests the workforce will get as much as three tries at nabbing a pattern. 

Then what?

Instantly after gathering its pattern, Osiris-Rex will hearth 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 12 months 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 achieved earlier than?

Sure. 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 presently on its means again to Earth.  

How one can comply with the mission

NASA hasn’t but introduced whether or not it can broadcast the TAG maneuver reside, nevertheless it appears possible NASA TV will carry some type of protection. We’ll replace this put up after we hear extra, and within the meantime, comply with the Osiris-Rex Twitter feed to get the most recent updates. 

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Eric Mack