This afternoon, NASA’s OSIRIS-REX spacecraft will take a small sample of rocks from the surface of an asteroid named Benue from more than 200 million miles from Earth. This is an ambitious task, but if it works, OSIRIS-REx may eventually return to Earth with the largest sample of material from another space body since NASA’s Apollo mission to the moon.
The OSIRIS-REX spacecraft has been orbiting the Banu for the past two years, mapping its surface and hunting for the right place to hold these rocks. After intensive planning from the mission team, the engineers have a goal that all are picked up on Beanu and ready to send their spacecraft to the surface. OSIRIS-REX will lightly touch Benue’s surface with an extended robotic arm, which will then blast into the air over rocks and shake things up. Pebble and dust should be sent to the hand in the blast. The debris would then be stored indoors for long journeys inside the spacecraft.
The OSIRIS-REx team has already uploaded commands to their spacecraft to pull out maneuvers at 6:12 PM ET this afternoon. Everything must be on autopilot to grab this specimen, as OSIRIS-REx and Bennu are far from Earth. The radio signal takes more than 18 minutes to reach the spacecraft, so if anything went wrong during the process, ground controllers would not be able to fix the problem quickly. But OSIRIS-REx has rehearsed for the moment, performing two dress rehearsals that descend down to the surface of Benue without actually touching it. Today, the vehicles will hopefully arrive.
Things meet at 1:45 pm ET, when OSIRIS-REX stops Benue’s orbit and begins its slow descent onto the asteroid’s surface. “This is over four and a half hours of mild concern,” said Beth Buck, mission operations program manager for Lockheed Martin’s OSIRIS-REx. The spacecraft should only make contact with Benue for five seconds, but there should be enough time to trap a large size material inside the arm of the vehicle. Something is going to happen before we can confirm if OSIRIS-REx however was successful. The mission team hopes to get back data tonight that will verify that the spacecraft has touched the asteroid, but they won’t know until tomorrow if the vehicle actually took a sample. The first images of the sample will begin arriving on Wednesday, and should be confirmed if OSIRIS-REX caught anything.
While we won’t be able to see the sample live, NASA is providing live coverage of the sample grab starting at 5PM ET from inside Lockheed Martin’s control center. Additionally, you can start the progress of OSIRIS-REx on the mission’s website at around 1:20 PM ET.