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Video Shows NASA’s Attempt at Scooping Samples From an Asteroid

A video compiled from dozens of photographs present the gathering try. The precise process was a lot slower than this sped-up model.
Gif: NASA/Goddard/College of Arizona/Gizmodo

Pictures captured by NASA’s OSIRIS-REx present the spacecraft’s pattern head touching the floor of asteroid Bennu, which then grew to become enveloped in a cloudy burst of mud and rock. The staff now has to determine how a lot floor materials was collected, if any, however these photographs are being taken as a really optimistic signal.

On Tuesday, OSIRIS-REx made contact with Bennu, an 1,800-foot-wide (565-meter) asteroid positioned 200 million miles (321 million kilometers) from Earth, marking NASA’s first try at gathering an asteroid pattern. Preliminary knowledge from the probe pointed to a profitable encounter, however new photographs launched by NASA late yesterday are added proof.

Photos snapped by the spacecraft’s SamCam imager present the 1-foot-wide (0.3-meter) sampling head completely bathed in particles. Although I’m no knowledgeable, it will be exhausting to imagine that nothing acquired scooped up by the gathering system, often known as Contact-and-Go, or TAG. However photographs might be deceiving, and the staff, led by the College of Arizona, will spend the following week making an attempt to determine how a lot particles was collected.

Roughly one second after making landing, the probe fired a nitrogen gasoline bottle, which produced the particles cloud, in response to a NASA statement. OSIRIS-REx arrived at a predetermined website referred to as Nightingale and reached the floor throughout its first try. The spherical head on the finish of the sampling arm, referred to as TAGSAM, was the one a part of the spacecraft that touched the asteroid’s floor. The TAG process was achieved autonomously with pre-programmed directions from floor engineers.

A two-frame GIF exhibiting the sampling head crushing porous rocks on the floor.
Gif: NASA/Goddard/College of Arizona/Gizmodo

Wanting on the photographs, you may see the pinnacle crushing a number of the porous rocks. Preliminary knowledge suggests the pinnacle remained in touch with the floor for round six seconds, of which 5 seconds had been spent gathering supplies. NASA says the primary three seconds are when the sampler doubtless collected a lot of the materials. The probe was shifting at 0.2 miles per hour (10 cm/sec) when it reached the floor.

Its job full, OSIRIS-REx then fired its reverse thrusters, which additionally kicked up floor materials. The spacecraft, which backed away at 0.9 mph (40 cm/sec), is as soon as once more orbiting Bennu, and it seems to be functioning usually.

As famous, the staff is now making an attempt to determine if the sampler truly acquired something. They’re hoping to gather round 60 grams, which is principally a chocolate bar’s value of fabric. Finally, OSIRIS-REx will return these samples to Earth for evaluation, so the extra materials that’s collected the higher.

Nightingale hazard map and TAG location.

Nightingale hazard map and TAG location.
Picture: NASA/Goddard/College of Arizona

The staff will use quite a lot of strategies to make this willpower. Step one shall be to measure how a lot materials was kicked up by the nitrogen blast. They’ll overview photographs of the TAG process, together with pictures exhibiting the quantity of mud that gathered across the sampling head. As a statement from the College of Arizona factors out, the staff will even attempt to weigh the collected materials, which they’ll do with some fancy physics:

A few days after the SamCam photographs are analyzed, the spacecraft will…measure the mass of the pattern collected by figuring out the change within the spacecraft’s “second of inertia,” a phrase that describes how mass is distributed and the way it impacts the rotation of the physique round a central axis. This maneuver entails extending the TAGSAM arm out to the facet of the spacecraft and slowly spinning the spacecraft about an axis perpendicular to the arm. This method is analogous to an individual spinning with their arm prolonged whereas holding a string with a ball connected to the tip; the particular person can sense the mass of the ball by the strain within the string. Having achieved this maneuver earlier than TAG, and now after, engineers can measure the change within the mass of the gathering head because of the pattern inside.

If the staff determines that not sufficient materials was collected, they’ll strive once more on January 12, 2021 at a website named Osprey. The TAG system has extra nitrogen gasoline obtainable, and the staff is in no sizzling rush to get the job achieved, as OSIRIS-REx received’t be departing the asteroid till March 2021, when Earth and Bennu are in a good orbital alignment.

As soon as at Earth, the collected materials shall be studied by scientists for years to come back. The floor of Bennu is believed to comprise supplies unchanged for the reason that earliest days of the photo voltaic system, which may make clear the function performed by asteroids in delivering water, and probably even the essential constructing blocks for all times, to early Earth.

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George Dvorsky