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NASA’s Osiris-REx Mission Aims to Return Samples From Asteroid’s Surface

Scientists hope that rubble scraped from the boulder-strewn surface of Bennu, as the asteroid is named, will reveal clues to the primordial cataclysms that formed the planets and likely seeded organic chemicals throughout the solar system.

10/21/2020 12:30:00 PM

For the first time, a NASA spacecraft successfully brushed the surface of an ancient asteroid to collect samples and return them to Earth. LEHOTZ explains how Osiris-REx’s mission to Bennu could shed light on the origins of life on Earth.

Scientists hope that rubble scraped from the boulder-strewn surface of Bennu, as the asteroid is named, will reveal clues to the primordial cataclysms that formed the planets and likely seeded organic chemicals throughout the solar system.

It may be days before the outcome of the encounter 200 million miles away, the heart of the National Aeronautics and Space Administration’s $1.16 billion Osiris-REx mission, can be determined, NASA officials said.“We tagged the surface of the asteroid,’ said Dante Lauretta, Osiris-REx principal investigator, as mission operations announced that telemetry signals showed the spacecraft made successful contact with Bennu. “I’m feeling transcendental. I can’t believe we pulled this off,” said Dr. Lauretta, who is also a professor at the University of Arizona.

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Originally thought to have a smoother surface, Bennu asteroid is littered with boulders making spacecraft landing treacherous. A landing spot named Nightingale was chosen for its relative landing ease and the amount and value of available material to be collected.

Nightingale landing spotPreferred landing site width: 164’SpacecraftLength: 20.25 feet with solar arrays deployedWidth: 8 feetLanding spotSits inside a small crate site : Diameter: 66'. The area covers a couple parking spaces wide.Collecting Samples

Almost 4.5 pounds of loose materialSize ComparisonEmpireStateBuildingBennu1,673feet1,453feetSource: NASAAlberto Cervantes, Taylor Umlauf/THE WALL STREET JOURNAL If the asteroid mission continues successfully, it will return to Earth in several years with the types of materials that scientists can study to understand the origin of the solar system.

Scientists hope that rubble scraped from the boulder-strewn surface of Bennu will reveal clues to the primordial cataclysms that formed the planets and likely seeded organic chemicals throughout the solar system. Scientists say asteroids like Bennu, rich in carbon-based materials, almost certainly smashed into the infant Earth, potentially fostering the distinctive biochemistry of life as we know it.

“We have widespread evidence that Bennu does contain carbon-rich material and water-based minerals,” said Heather Enos, deputy principal investigator for the Osiris-REx mission, as NASA calls it, at the University of Arizona. “It is exactly the kind of material we want to bring back to Earth.”

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If the mission goes well, NASA hopes to land the asteroid sample at the Utah Test and Training Range in September 2023.Asteroid sampling is a first for NASA. If it succeeds, it will be the third time robots from Earth brought home part of an asteroid for analysis. In 2010, Japan’s Hayabusa mission brought back several micrograms from a small asteroid named Itokawa. Hayabusa2, its successor, is scheduled to drop off material at the Woomera Test Range in Australia from an asteroid named Ryugu in December.

“The asteroids are like time capsules floating in space that can provide a fossil record of the birth of our solar system,” said Lori Glaze, NASA’s planetary science division director. “They can provide valuable information about how the planets, including our own, came to be.”

SHARE YOUR THOUGHTSWhat would you like to know about the origins of planets? Join the conversation below.Measuring about a third of a mile across, Bennu is a pile of loosely compacted rubble barely held together by gravity, according to planetary scientists at the University of Arizona. It appears to be so full of holes that it could easily fly apart one day from the force of its own rotation, the scientists said.

“Due to the low gravity, we can’t actually land on the surface of Bennu,” Beth Buck, mission operations program manager at Lockheed Martin Space, said before the spacecraft touched Bennu. “So, we will only be kissing the surface in a short touch and go measured in just seconds.” Lockheed Martin Space built the spacecraft.

When they launched the spacecraft in 2016, NASA mission planners expected the asteroid to offer a smooth sandy surface with ample room for sampling, and designed much of the mission accordingly. The spacecraft’s automated scoop, for instance, can collect only particles smaller than an inch or so (2 centimeters). Upon arrival in 2018, however, they found instead that Bennu was covered with big rocks leaving almost no area clear enough for the two-ton Osiris-REx spacecraft to operate safely.

“It’s not the sandy beach I hoped we would see initially,” said Thomas Zurbuchen, associate administrator of NASA’s science mission directorate.At least six massive boulders on its surface apparently originated far away on a quite different asteroid called Vesta. They may have been knocked loose during an ancient billiard-ball collision between intersecting asteroids and veered off toward Bennu, said scientists at the space agency’s Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Md., which is managing the mission.

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Today, pebbles are constantly popping off the surface of Bennu due to impacts with small space rocks or thermal stress, researchers at Arizona’s Lunar and Planetary Laboratory reported last month in the Journal of Geophysical Research: Planets.“It is ejecting particles from its surface,” said Dr. Lauretta. “They are actually going into orbit and spiraling around the asteroid.”

Coping with the unexpectedly hazardous terrain, researchers pored through thousands of images searching for a spot clear enough to sample safely. They settled on a place about the size of several tennis courts they named Nightingale.The spacecraft conducted its encounter autonomously, guided by an onboard optical terrain tracking system, because signals from Earth take more than 18 minutes to reach Bennu. “Because of the time and precision required, we aren’t able to joystick the spacecraft in real time,” said Kenneth Getzandanner, mission flight dynamics manager at the Goddard Center.

If all went to plan, the team expects to have swept up from about two ounces (60 grams) to almost 4½ pounds (2 kilograms) of material. They won’t know for sure how much material the probe collected until after they have had time to analyze spacecraft data.

“We have some work to do to understand how much sample we collected,” Dr. Lauretta said.Write to Robert Lee Hotz at sciencejournal@wsj.comCopyright ©2020 Dow Jones & Company, Inc. All Rights Reserved. 87990cbe856818d5eddac44c7b1cdeb8 Read more: The Wall Street Journal »

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