NASA's unmanned spacecraft Osiris-Rex (Image: NASA) Photograph:( Others )
The historic mission was 12 years in the making and rested on a critical 16 second period where the spacecraft performed a delicate autonomous maneuver to grab its payload
After a four-year journey, NASA's robotic spacecraft Osiris-Rex successfully snatched on Tuesday a sample from asteroid Bennu's boulder-strewn surface to bring home the space agency's largest sample since the Apollo era.
The back-away burn is complete 🛑✅ I'm now moving to a safe distance away from Bennu. pic.twitter.com/bXk2ufSneS— NASA's OSIRIS-REx (@OSIRISREx) October 20, 2020
At 6:12 p.m. EDT (22:12 GMT), the spacecraft performed a meticulous five-second 'touch-and-go' technique or TAG maneuver by autonomously extending its 11-foot (3.35 m) robotic arm toward a flat patch of gravel roughly the size of a basketball court near Bennu's north pole.
It was managed by Lockheed Martin Space in Denver, Colorado where an announcer said: "Touchdown declared. Sampling is in progress," and scientists erupted in celebration.
The historic mission was 12 years in the making and rested on a critical 16 second period where the spacecraft performed a delicate autonomous maneuver to grab its payload: at least 60 grams (two ounces), or a candy-bar sized amount of surface material that scientists hope will help unravel the origins of our solar system.
The spacecraft launched in 2016 from Kennedy Space Center for the journey to Bennu. It has been in orbit around the asteroid for nearly two years preparing for the "touch and go" maneuver.
A collection device attached to the arm and shaped like an oversized showerhead 'touched' Bennu's surface for five seconds and shot out a burst of nitrogen gas, kicking up debris and entrapping rocky material inside the device's sampling head.
The ground controllers are expected to confirm the capture of Bennu remnants a few hours after the attempt. That will allow the spacecraft to start its journey back toward Earth arriving in 2023 to return the first US cache of pristine asteroid rocks. Japan is the only other country to accomplish this before.
Asteroids are among the leftover debris from the solar system's formation some 4.5 billion years ago.
Scientists believe asteroids and comets crashing into early Earth may have delivered organic compounds and water that seeded the planet for life. Atomic-level analysis of samples from Bennu could provide key evidence to support that hypothesis