NASA's OSIRIS-REx successfully collected bits of an orbiting asteroid

U.S. spacecraft touches asteroid surface for rubble grab

- NASA's Osiris-Rex probe unfurled its robotic arm last night and successfully touched an asteroid to collect dust and pebbles from its surface, the USA space agency said.

The Apollo missions between 1969 and 1972 brought back 382 kilograms of moon rock, pebble and stone samples.

The Osiris-Rex spacecraft sent confirmation of its short communication with the asteroid Bennu more than 200 miles (322 meters) away, prompting cheers from the mission team.

From here, OSIRIS-Rex will pull away from the asteroid, redeploy its solar panels as well as a high-gain antenna to transmit initial images and data from the operation then begin a almost three year long trek back to Earth where the collection capsule is expected to land at the Utah Test and Training Range in 2023.

At that distance, there's an 18.5-minute delay for the signal to get from the spacecraft to the Earth, So, the entire sequence is autonomous, with software on board that will navigate OSIRIS-REx safely to the surface, and if it detects any hazards or boulders, it will perform a backaway burn to keep the spacecraft safe, and attempt another sampling event later.

"Asteroids are like time capsules floating in space that can provide fossil recordings of the birth of our solar system", NASA's Director of Planetary Science, Lori Clas, told Al Jazeera.

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When OSIRIS-REx was launched, back in 2016, mission planners had expected to find a smooth stretch of cosmic sand for sample collection.

NASA's OSIRIS-REx spacecraft is set to bring home the sample it obtained from asteroid Bennu in a couple of years. Bennu offers scientists a window into the early solar system as it was first taking shape billions of years ago and flinging ingredients that could have helped seed life on Earth. It arrived at the asteroid in 2018, hung around for a year doing surveys before scooping up a container of regolith - bits of rock and dust - and jetting off back to Earth.

Journey's end " It's a historic first mission for NASA, returning an asteroid sample, and it's hard", said Thomas Zurbuchen, associate administrator of NASA's Science Mission Directorate, during a press conference on Monday.

At the climax, OSIRIS-REx's collection arm touched Bennu's surface for only a few seconds. As part of the preparations, NASA is building a separate lab for the Hayabusa2 samples next to the OSIRIS-REx rooms so they can share commonly needed infrastructure, such as air handling systems and nitrogen storage environments. The more scientists know about the paths and properties of potentially risky space rocks like this one, the better. "The spacecraft will then divert away from Earth, going into orbit around the sun, and the canister will descend to the atmosphere and on a parachute land in the Utah desert just before 9:00 a.m. Mountain Daylight Time on Sunday, Sept. 24, 2023". If, for some reason, the collection effort didn't actually pick up enough of a sample, the OSIRIS-REx team can try again in January.

"That will be another big day for us. But this is absolutely the major event of the mission right now", NASA scientist Lucy Lim said.

Still more asteroid missions are planned in the years ahead.

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