After a four year trek through deep space, OSIRIS-REx made history this evening as it became the first NASA spacecraft to try and collect a surface sample from an asteroid (Editor’s note: servers may be down due to the breaking news). Once sensors verify the collected material is safely onboard, the vehicle will begin drifting away from the 490 meter wide Bennu in preparation of its eventual departure and return to Earth. If all goes according to plan, the craft’s conical Sample Return Capsule carrying its precious cargo will renter the atmosphere and land at the Utah Test and Training Range in September of 2023.
Due to its extremely low gravity and rocky surface, a traditional landing on Bennu was deemed impractical. Instead, OSIRIS-REx performed a daring touch and go maneuver that brought the spacecraft into contact with the surface for just a few seconds.
A camera on the bottom of the vehicle took images every few minutes during the descent and ran them through an onboard system called Natural Feature Tracking (NFT) that autonomously steered it away from dangerous surface features. As a precaution, the solar panels on the OSIRIS-REx were angled backwards in a “Y-Wing” configuration shortly before the descent to help protect them from striking the surface or being damaged by ejected material.
Once the colander-like Touch-And-Go Sample Acquisition Mechanism (TAGSAM) mounted to the end of the spacecraft’s 3.35 meter (11 foot) articulated robotic arm arm made contact with the regolith, pressurized nitrogen was used to kick up material and push it towards storage caches built into the mechanism. With so much riding on the successful collection of surface material, this largely passive system was selected to minimize the possible failures in the critical few seconds that OSIRIS-REx would be in contact with Bennu. Mission planners say it might take until Saturday to determine if a sample was successfully collected, and that the spacecraft has the ability to perform two more attempts if needed.
After its discovery in September 1999, both the Arecibo Observatory and the Goldstone Deep Space Network were used to make radar observations of Bennu to study its shape and size. Calculations have shown it has a cumulative 1 in 2,700 chance of striking the Earth by the year 2199. By mapping the asteroid, studying it at close range, and bringing a geological sample back home, NASA hopes to gain valuable insight on how similar near-Earth objects can be detected and ultimately diverted if needed.