NASA Spacecraft Will Touch Down On Near-Earth Asteroid Today
A NASA spacecraft will touch down on the near-Earth asteroid Bennu today to collect a sample from its surface.
Like a much, much more advanced and scientific dog circling the same spot before finally settling down, the OSIRIS-REx spacecraft has been orbiting the asteroid for nearly two years as it prepared to make contact.
Today, October 20, the craft is finally ready to reach out its robotic arm, which will touch down in a landing site dubbed Nightingale. The site is approximately as wide as a few car parking spaces, and is located within a crater the size of a tennis court, which is ringed with huge boulders.
Once it makes contact with the asteroid, the arm will collect a sample of between two ounces and two kilograms from the surface of Bennu in what has been dubbed the ‘Touch-and-Go (TAG) sample collection event’, CNN reports.
The TAG event will begin at 5pm ET today, though it will be some time before scientists get to see what treasures the craft has collected, as the sample won’t arrive on Earth until 2023.
Thomas Zurbuchen, associate administrator of NASA’s Science Mission Directorate, commented on the mission in a press conference, saying:
It’s a historic first mission for NASA, returning an asteroid sample, and it’s hard.
Bennu is almost a Rosetta Stone out there, and it tells the history of our Earth and solar system during the last billions of years. Bennu has presented a lot of challenges, but the ingenuity of the team has enabled us to get where we are.
Rather than being one single object, Bennu is formed of a grouping of rocks held together by gravity; a formation known as a ‘rubble pile’ asteroid. It is shaped like a spinning top and is as tall as the Empire State Building – 443 metres.
Though it is located 200 million miles away from Earth, Bennu has an orbit that brings it close to our planet, which is why it’s considered to be a near-Earth asteroid.
OSIRIS-REx – which stands for Origins, Spectral Interpretation, Resource Identification, Security-Regolith Explorer – launched in September 2016. Once it arrived at the astroid, the craft used its technology and cameras to collect and record data and images, which were sent back to NASA on Earth.
Scientists used the information to learn more about the asteroid’s composition and map the best potential landing sites to collect samples, which is how they settled on Nightingale.
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