NASA completed a long and complicated game of “tag” on Tuesday, when its OSIRIS-REx spacecraft successfully touched a near-Earth asteroid to collect a sample for the first time in the space agency’s history.
The van-sized craft played the long game with asteroid 101955 Bennu, circling the object for nearly two years before going in to grab a sample on Tuesday.
Bennu is slightly wider than the Empire State Building, nearly as old as our sun and covered with bits and pieces of compressed space debris. That makes it a celestial “rubble pile” worth picking over for clues about the early stages of the universe, according to NASA.
OSIRIS-REx cruised across the surface of the asteroid to a landing spot no bigger than five parking spaces in an operation dubbed Touch-and-Go (TAG). The space vehicle then stuck out a robotic arm and scooped up a sample from the ancient asteroid’s surface before pushing off again.
“TOUCHDOWN!” NASA tweeted on Tuesday, along with a simulation video of the sampling arm at work.
“Today’s TAG manoeuvre was historic,” Lori Glaze, Planetary Science Division director at NASA Headquarters, said in a statement. “The fact that we safely and successfully touched the surface of Bennu, in addition to all the other milestones this mission has already achieved, is a testament to the living spirit of exploration that continues to uncover the secrets of the solar system.”
It’s unclear exactly how large the sample was, but it could weigh between 60 grams and two kilograms, according to NASA. It could take about a week to confirm that a sample is onboard, NASA says. OSIRIS-REx will make a second pass in January if this first one comes up empty.
The sample will offer researchers a glimpse into the history of the universe, according to Thomas Zurbuchen, associate administrator for NASA’s Science Mission Directorate.
“A piece of primordial rock that has witnessed our solar system’s entire history may now be ready to come home for generations of scientific discovery,” he said in a statement on Tuesday. “We can’t wait to see what comes next.”
Bennu likely broke off from a much larger space rock between Mars and Jupiter up to two billion years ago, and it now orbits the sun while spinning like a “top” on its axis every 4.3 hours. That makes it tricky to approach with a spacecraft.
Data from OSIRIS-REx suggests that the complicated operation was a success, according to Dante Lauretta, the mission’s principal investigator and a professor at the University of Arizona’s Lunar and Planetary Laboratory.
“After over a decade of planning, the team is overjoyed at the success of today’s sampling attempt,” he said in a statement. “The successful contact, the (Touch-and-Go Sample Acquisition Mechanism) gas firing, and back-away from Bennu are major accomplishments for the team. I look forward to analyzing the data to determine the mass of sample collected.”
NASA says the asteroid might contain a wide variety of scientific gems, from platinum and gold to hints about the origins of life on Earth.
The OSIRIS-REx spacecraft launched in 2016 and travelled over 300 million kilometres to reach Bennu. The craft is expected to return to Earth in 2023.
That’s well ahead of a possible visit from Bennu itself, which poses a very slight (one in 2,700) chance of hitting Earth in the late 22nd century.
Everyone alive today will be long dead by that point — but perhaps the film Armageddon will stand the test of time for that day when Bennu tries to tag us back.