Earlier in October, NASA successfully collected rocky samples from asteroid Bennu, a relatively small, well-preserved space rock some 200 million miles from Earth. On Friday, NASA released footage of the spacecraft, OSIRIS-REx, approaching and briefly touching down on the rubbly Bennu. The events, seen in the space agency’s tweet below, show OSIRIS-REx carefully descending to Bennu’s rock-strewn surface.
The spacecraft collected over 60 grams, or about two ounces, of fine-grained material during the quick touchdown, which lasted under 16 seconds. To planetary scientists, this asteroidal stuff is invaluable: Bennu hasn’t changed much since the formation of our solar system (4.5 billion years ago), so the samples provide a glimpse into our past, and how our planets formed.
“They are like time capsules from the beginning of our solar system,” Richard Binzel, an astronomer at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and a scientist working on the OSIRIS-REx mission, told Mashable. “This is like sampling the original ingredients for making planets.”
(The first ambitious mission to carry asteroid samples back to Earth, Japan’s Hayabusa mission, returned in 2010.)
NASA called the endeavor a “Touch-And-Go (TAG) sample collection event.” The maneuver was indeed a quick “tag” of Bennu’s surface. OSIRIS-REx carefully approached the asteroid for over four hours before briefly touching down and firing nitrogen gas to stir up fragments into Bennu’s sample collector. Then, the spacecraft promptly blasted away.
OSIRIS-REx captured so much surface material that some of the fine grains even escaped before the collector was stowed away for the return trip home. The spacecraft is expected to arrive on Earth with the invaluable cargo on Sep. 24, 2023.