Nasa Osiris-Rex spacecraft lands on asteroid Bennu in mission to collect dust

Spacecraft ‘kissed the surface’ in brief landing on asteroid 200m miles away from Earth in US-first mission

A Nasa spacecraft has successfully landed on an asteroid, dodging boulders the size of buildings, in order to collect a handful of cosmic rubble for analysis back on Earth.

The space agency team behind the Osiris-Rex project said preliminary data showed the sample collection went as planned and that the spacecraft had lifted off the surface of asteroid Bennu.

“I can’t believe we actually pulled this off,” said lead scientist Dante Lauretta of the University of Arizona. “The spacecraft did everything it was supposed to do.”

The back-away burn is complete 🛑✅ I'm now moving to a safe distance away from Bennu.

— NASA's OSIRIS-REx (@OSIRISREx) October 20, 2020

The Nasa administrator, Jim Bridenstine, offered his congratulations, saying: “We are on the way to returning the largest sample brought home from space since Apollo. If all goes well, this sample will be studied by scientists for generations to come.”

The Osiris-Rex spacecraft sent back confirmation of its brief contact with asteroid Bennu more than 200m miles (322m km) away, drawing cheers from the mission team. But it could be a week before scientists know how much, if anything, was grabbed and whether another try will be needed. If successful, Osiris-Rex will return the samples in 2023.

The US mission follows one run by Japan called Hayabusa2, which is due to return to Earth in December bearing samples collected from the 4.5bn-year-old asteroid Ryugu. When it lands in the Australian desert, it will be the first ever sub-surface asteroid sample to return to Earth.

On Bennu, the Osiris-Rex spacecraft took four and a half hours to make its way down from its tight orbit to the surface, following commands sent well in advance by ground controllers near Denver.

The sampling arm of the Osiris-Rex spacecraft is tested during a rehearsal landing on the surface of the asteroid Bennu.
The sampling arm of the Osiris-Rex spacecraft is tested during a rehearsal landing on the surface of the asteroid Bennu. Photograph: AP

As the asteroid is just 1,670ft (510 meters) across, Bennu’s gravity was too low for Osiris-Rex to land. As a result, the spacecraft had to reach out with its 11ft (3.4-meter) robot arm and attempt to grab at least 2 ounces (60 grams) of Bennu.

The University of Arizona’s Heather Enos, deputy scientist for the mission, described it as “kissing the surface with a short touch-and-go measured in just seconds”.

The coronavirus pandemic had resulted in a two-month delay. Tuesday’s operation was considered the most harrowing part of the mission, which began with a launch from Cape Canaveral back in 2016.

Osiris-Rex, a van-size spacecraft, aimed for a spot equivalent to a few parking spaces on Earth in the middle of the asteroid’s Nightingale Crater. After nearly two years orbiting Bennu, the spacecraft found this location to have the biggest patch of particles small enough to be swallowed up.

After determining that the coast was clear, Osiris-Rex closed in the final few yards for the sampling. The spacecraft was programmed to shoot out pressurized nitrogen gas to stir up the surface, then suck up any loose pebbles or dust.

Scientists want between 2 ounces (60g) and 4 pounds (2kg) of Bennu’s black, crumbly, carbon-rich material thought to contain the building blocks of our solar system.

A mosaic image of asteroid Bennu taken by the Osiris-Rex spacecraft from a range of 15 miles (24 km).
A mosaic image of asteroid Bennu taken by the Osiris-Rex spacecraft from a range of 15 miles (24km). Photograph: Nasa/Goddard/University of Arizona/EPA

Nasa’s science mission chief, Thomas Zurbuchen, likened Bennu to the Rosetta Stone, “something that’s out there and tells the history of our entire Earth, of the solar system, during the last billions of years”.

Another benefit: Bennu has a slight chance of smacking Earth late in the next century, although not as a show-stopping life-ender. The more scientists know about the paths and properties of potentially hazardous space rocks like this one, the better. Osiris-Rex can make up to three touch-and-go maneuvers in case it comes up short. Regardless of how many tries it takes, the samples will not return to Earth until 2023 to close out the $800m-plus quest. The sample capsule will parachute into the Utah desert.

“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.

Nasa, meanwhile, plans to launch three more asteroid missions in the next two years, all one-way trips.

With Associated Press

Staff and agencies

The GuardianTramp

Related Content

Article image
Nasa to slam spacecraft into asteroid in mission to avoid future Armageddon
Test drive of planetary defence system aims to provide data on how to deflect asteroids away from Earth

Linda Geddes

22, Nov, 2021 @4:04 PM

Article image
Nasa probe reaches Bennu – asteroid that could one day hit Earth
Osiris-Rex spacecraft will eventually scoop up material for analysis back home

Staff and agencies

04, Dec, 2018 @1:29 AM

Article image
Nasa launches spacecraft to 'high-five' asteroid and capture debris
The mission has been described as a ‘slow high-five’ with a nearby asteroid to collect material that could date back to the origins of the solar system

Alan Yuhas in San Francisco

09, Sep, 2016 @12:10 AM

Article image
Spacewatch: Nasa's Osiris-Rex spacecraft orbits asteroid Bennu
The craft is to collect samples of material that reflect the solar system’s earliest stages

Stuart Clark

10, Jan, 2019 @9:30 PM

Article image
Osiris-Rex mission on course for asteroid sample collection
Nasa spacecraft makes final preparations to gather material from Bennu’s surface in October

Stuart Clark

20, Aug, 2020 @8:30 PM

Nasa animation shows mission to catch asteroid - video

A Nasa animation demonstrates the agency's plan to capture an asteroid in the moon's orbit

12, Apr, 2013 @6:53 AM

Article image
Top Nasa official defends asteroid mission and Earth research to Congress
Charles Bolden countered criticism from House on agency’s ‘partisan environmental agenda’ and ‘uninspiring’ space work at budget hearing

Alan Yuhas in New York

16, Apr, 2015 @6:55 PM

Robot mission to collect rock samples from asteroid

European Space Agency says analysis of asteroid could give information on how our solar system was formed

James Randerson, science correspondent

19, Sep, 2008 @11:01 PM

Article image
Spacewatch: Will Nasa bag an asteroid?

Alan Pickup on a projected mission to capture a small asteroid and bring it close enough to Earth for astronauts to visit it

Alan Pickup

19, Apr, 2013 @8:30 PM

Article image
Earth woefully unprepared for surprise comet or asteroid, Nasa scientist warns
Scientist recommended Nasa build an interceptor rocket, with periodic testing, alongside an observer spacecraft to stop catastrophic fireballs from hitting us

Alan Yuhas in San Francisco

13, Dec, 2016 @8:00 AM