NASA’s OSIRIS-REX spacecraft tags asteroid Bennu to return material

A rendering of the OSIRIS-REx spacecraft.


A NASA spacecraft touched the surface of the asteroid Bennu on Tuesday, in a mission that aims to return rocky fragments to Earth in 2023 for examination.

“Touchdown declared,” NASA said on a webcast from the mission’s control center. “Sample continues.”

The mission marks the first time NASA has attempted to return material from an asteroid, a feat that only Japan has previously pulled up but in small quantities. While NASA confirmed that the spacecraft had touched the asteroid, the space agency would not know for several more hours if it successfully collected the material.

Called OSIRIS-REX – an abbreviated form that stands for Origin, Spectral Interpretation, Resource Identification, Security, Resolith Explorer – represents the culmination of years of NASA spacecraft work. The mission launched in 2016 with a cost of approximately $ 1 billion.

Professor of Planetary Science and Cosmology of the University of Arizona, Drs. Dente Loretta, “Everything I’ve worked on to this day has been focused on landing the spacecraft to approach the asteroid and collect the sample.” Mission, told CNBC.

The OSIRIS-REX spacecraft is about the size of a giant van in itself: 20 feet long, 9 feet wide, 10 feet tall, with an 11 feet arm that will reach down to grab the material in a maneuver that NASA calls. “Asteroid” is called “tagging”. The spacecraft was built by Lockheed Martin’s Department of Space.

“Those who are able to find deep space missions apply directly [NASA’s other efforts, such as] Lunar exploration, ”Ari Vogel, Lockheed Martin director of deep space exploration, told CNBC.

Tag asteroid

An image of the asteroid Bennu taken by NASA’s OSIRIS-REx spacecraft.


OSIRIS-REX is over 200 million miles from Earth, having arrived in Benue in December 2018 after a two-year journey. NASA spent the most in 2019 to inform Bennon of its tagged effort, along with the equipment fitted in the spacecraft. In December 2019, NASA announced that OSIRIS-REx would target a location called the Nightingale, which is Tuesday’s collection of materials.

Laurenta said, “Benue has best characterized the asteroid in history.” Like the Earth, the asteroid orbits around the Sun. At the time of the attempt, Benue was on the opposite side of the Sun, meaning that there is a delay of approximately 19 minutes between Lockheed Martin’s mission control in Colorado and the asteroid’s spacecraft.

The OSIRIS-REX spacecraft undergoes testing before launching in 2016.


“When we’re talking spacecraft, we have these giant antennas that are all over the world that send a signal that goes in front of the sun, and then another distance in the solar system, and then it goes to the spacecraft Reaches, ”said Loretta.

Lauretta is in charge of the mission’s scientific goals, primarily selecting the site to collect material.

“Once I made that selection, I handed it over to the engineering team and the spacecraft team, for which Lockheed Martin is responsible,” Lauretta said.

Sample collection is a 4-and-a-half-hour event, in which the spacecraft slowly reaches the surface of the asteroid while performing several maneuvers. The OSIRIS-REX operations team confirmed that the spacecraft successfully touched the surface, demonstrated its sample collection, and then backed away from the asteroid on board spacecraft thrusters.

The purpose of OSIRIS-REX is to collect the contents of two ounces and five pounds of beanu back to Earth. It is the largest specimen from space since the Apollo moon missions.

Mission goals

NASA hopes that the samples collected will include new scientific discoveries in addition to benefits from new technologies developed by the mission.

“We think that Beanu has transported water and organic material to the surface of the Earth,” said Loretta. “So when we selected Banu, we were expecting it to happen and we have verified both of them.” [imaging] Campaign. ”

Secondly, the OSIRIS-REx team chose Benue for planetary defense purposes. While it is one of more than 500,000 known asteroids in the solar system, Beanu has “a high probability of impacting the Earth at the end of the 22nd century.” It may be more than 150 years away, but NASA now wants to study the asteroid to find out how the agency can save it from crashing into Earth.

“Understanding these debris piles and changing their classes is very useful for any potential mitigation mission that we have to do in the future,” Vogel said. “The Hollywood version of bombing an asteroid and flying it is not going to work based on what we discovered with Benue.”

Lauretta stated that, “since it is mostly American taxpayers who are paying for this mission,” he takes responsibility for seeking meaningful new findings “very seriously” – an idea that he certainly has with the Earth. An asteroid is included.

“It’s a relatively large asteroid, so it will ruin your day,” Lauretta said. “Asteroids are nature’s way of asking: ‘How has your space program been?’ Because in future humanity may someday need to mount a mission to stop this asteroid or any other asteroid from killing us. We have developed an amazing array of technologies to get out of the asteroid, which is this asteroid Is doing all kinds of precise maneuvering around. Featuring it. In great detail… all of this will be somehow relevant to future asteroid impact mitigation missions. ”

Both Lauretta and Vogel talked about two future applications of OSIRIS-REX technology: using resources in space, also known as in situ resource utilization and asteroid mining.

“In situ resource utilization is a big goal. As we move further and further into space, we cannot take everything we need with us, so in situ resource utilization is something that will keep us moving forward. Because we can use local materials even further, ”said Vogel.

Although Vogel believes the “business case on asteroid mining is not close enough”, he said there are many aspects of the mission that could be used in the future – a fact Lauretta further emphasized.

“We see Earth’s asteroids as economic resources,” said Loretta. “It is a costly operation, but it is expensive to get up and running any mining operation. And these represent natural resources that are accessible in the solar system.

“In some ways we are the savior of the future,” said Loretta. “We’re investigating the composition of these materials and we’re bringing it back. It’s like the old geologists who were roaming the mountains, bringing sample samples back to the lab, see if it was worth mining.” No. “

Ahead of the touchdown, Loretta said that the OSIRIS-REX team created “a very detailed map of the asteroid” to find the correct target location. The spacecraft did not technically land on the asteroid, Vogel explained for several reasons. Primarily, Vogel said that Benue has its own micro-gravity environment, so “any type of force can make the asteroid’s orbit very bad” and make it “really difficult” to control the spacecraft. . So the teams created a “touch-and-go-maneuver”, so the spacecraft would only gently touch the asteroid before moving back away.

To make this possible, Lockheed Martin and NASA developed a technique called natural tracking technology. It is a precise autonomous guidance system that takes the spacecraft to the surface of a planet.

“We’re the first mission to use it,” said Loretta.

Back up plan

Vogel said that “the days following the tag are going to be almost as exciting,” as it is when the OSIRIS-REX spacecraft will relay whether it collected enough material back to the head. If the spacecraft has fuel for two more capture attempts, it will take a few months to coordinate.

The “main decision point” will be on October 30, Loretta said, when the team “will decide if we have enough sample and we are successful.”

The spacecraft is scheduled to depart Bennu early next year, heading back to Earth where it is expected to arrive in September 2023.

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