A NASA spacecraft touched the rugged surface of the Bennu asteroid on Tuesday, grabbing a sample of rocks dating back to the birth of our solar system to bring home.
The OSIRIS-REx minivan-sized spacecraft, built by Lockheed Martin, extended its 3.35-meter-long robotic arm toward a flat gravel spot near Bennus’ North Pole and picked up the rock sample, the space agency’s first handful of pristine asteroid rocks.
“The sample collection is complete and the back-away incineration has been completed,” Lockheed mission operator Estelle Church added seconds later, confirming that the spacecraft was lifted away from the spacecraft after contact.
The probe sends images of the sample collection back on Wednesday and during the week, so researchers can examine how much material was retrieved and determine if the probe needs to make another collection attempt.
If a successful collection is confirmed, the spacecraft will travel back to Earth and arrive in 2023. Japan is the only other country that has already achieved this.
Bennu, located over 100 million miles from Earth and whose acorn-shaped body was formed in the early days of our solar system, could have traces of the origin of life on Earth, scientists say. “Everything went just exactly perfectly,” Dante Lauretta, OSIRIS-REx lead researcher at the University of Arizona, Tucson, said in a NASA live feed from Lockheed’s mission support building. “We have overcome the amazing challenges that this asteroid has thrown at us, and the spacecraft seems to have worked flawlessly.”
The robotic arm collection device, shaped like an oversized shower head, is designed to release a gas under pressure to kick up waste.
The spacecraft was launched in 2016 from the Kennedy Space Center for the journey to Bennu. It has been orbiting the asteroid for almost two years, preparing for the “touch and go” maneuver.
“A lot of things could go wrong because the spacecraft is about the size of a van and the asteroid has a lot of boulders in it,” said Lucy Lim, a planetary scientist at NASA, in an earlier interview. “So we have to go between the boulders to get our sample, and a lot of planning was put into it.”
Asteroids are among the remaining wastes from the formation of the solar system about 4.5 billion years ago. Scientists believe that asteroids and comets crashing into the early Earth may have provided organic compounds and water that saw the Earth come to life. Atomic level analysis of samples from Bennu could provide key evidence to support this hypothesis.