A NASA spacecraft descended on an asteroid, knocked down building-sized rocks, and touched the surface to collect a handful of cosmic debris to return to Earth.
T is the first for the United States – only Japan has collected asteroid samples.
Dante Loretta, a leading scientist at the University of Arizona, said: “I can’t believe we pulled this off.
“The spacecraft did everything it had to do.”
The Osiris-Rex spacecraft confirmed contact with the asteroid Benu 200 million miles away, much to the delight of the mission team.
It may be a week before scientists know how much, if any, another attempt is needed.
If successful, Osiris-Rex will return samples in 2023.
It took four and a half hours for the spacecraft to take off from the tight orbit around Bennu, following pre-commands sent by the ground controllers near Denver.
Bennu’s gravity was too low for the Osiris-Rex to land – 1,670 feet (510 m) across the asteroid.
As a result, the spacecraft attempted to reach the 11-foot (3.4 m) robot arm and capture Bennu’s two ounces (60 g).
Heather Enos, a deputy scientist at the University of Arizona, described it as “a kiss on the surface with a short touch measured in seconds.”
During the mission control for spacecraft manufacturer Lockheed Martin, the controllers on the tag team – for touch-and-go – wore royal blue polo shirts and black masks with the mission patch.
The corona virus pandemic caused a two-month delay.
Tuesday’s operation was considered the most painful part of the mission, which was launched in 2016 from Cape Canaveral.
Osiris-Rex, a van-sized spacecraft with the Egyptian-inspired name, aimed at a space similar to a few parking lots on Earth in the middle of the asteroid’s Nightingale crater.
After orbiting Bennu for about two years, the spacecraft discovered that it was capable of swallowing the largest particles in space.
After the shoreline was determined to be clear, Osiris-Rex closed for the last few yards for a sample.
The spacecraft was programmed to expel pressurized nitrogen gas to shake the surface and then absorb loose rocks and dust.
The contact was expected to last just five to 10 seconds, and the spacecraft would quickly retreat.
By the time the flight controllers returned from Osiris-Rex, the action had already taken place a minute and a half ago, the time it would take for radio signals to travel each route between Bennu and Earth.
Scientists need two ounces (60 grams) and four pounds (2 kilograms) of Bennu’s black, broken, carbon-rich material – thought to contain the building blocks of our solar system.
Thomas Zurbuchen, head of NASA’s science mission, likened Bennu to the Rosetta Stone: “It tells the story of what has been there for billions of years and the whole earth of the solar system.”
Although not a show-stopping life end, Bennu has a small chance of destroying the earth by the end of the next century.
The more scientists know about the trajectories and nature of dangerous space rocks like this, the safer we will all be.
In short, Osiris-Rex can create three touch-and-go masterpieces.
No matter how many attempts are made, the samples will not return to Earth until 2023 to complete the $ 800 million investigation.
The sample capsule will be parachuted into the Utah desert.
“It simply came to our notice then. But this is the main event of the mission right now, ”said NASA scientist Lucy Lim.
Samples from Japan’s second asteroid mission – in milligrams – are expected to arrive in the Australian desert in December.
Meanwhile, NASA plans to launch three more asteroid missions in the next two years.
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