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Cosmic Space

Images show OSIRIS-REx made ‘a good mess’ on asteroid

The first pictures from the OSIRIS-REx probe’s brief touchdown on the asteroid Bennu have boosted scientists’ confidence that they’ll be getting a good sample of out-of-this-world dust and gravel when the spacecraft swings back to Earth.

“We really did kind of make a mess on this asteroid, but it’s a good mess,” the University of Arizona’s Dante Lauretta, principal investigator for the $800 million NASA mission, said today during a news briefing at which the imagery was released.

The image sequence shows OSIRIS-REx’s arm smashing a foot-wide, circular sample collection head — known as the Touch-and-Go Sample Acquisition Mechanism, or TAGSAM — down into Bennu’s crumbly surface, more than 200 million miles from Earth. The impact, and a well-timed blast of nitrogen gas, sent bits of material flying into space.

Based on an analysis of the images, the collection head penetrated about an inch (2 centimeters) beneath the surface, shattering a rock in the process. “Literally, we crushed it,” Lauretta said.

The collection head was designed to snare some of the material that was ejected during the touch-and-go. It was in contact with Bennu’s surface for only six seconds, but the probe’s performance during the maneuver was “as good as we could have imagined,” Lauretta said.

That’s good news for OSIRIS-REx’s scientists and engineers, who have been tasked with bringing back at least 60 grams (2 ounces) of material from the asteroid in 2023.

The van-sized OSIRIS-REx spacecraft was launched in 2016 and arrived at the roughly 1,600-foot-wide asteroid two years ago. The Oct. 20 operation marked the first time NASA tried grabbing a sample of an asteroid for return to Earth. (The Japanese have done it twice in the past 15 years.)

Scientists hope the fresh sample of material from a multibillion-year-old asteroid will bring new insights about the origins of the solar system and the chemical precursors of life.

“Origins” is the first word in the phrase that forms OSIRIS-REx’s Egyptian-sounding acronym: “Origins, Spectral Interpretation, Resource Identification, Security, Regolith Explorer.” The mission is also designed to help scientists figure out what kinds of resources could be extracted from asteroids, and what strategies would work best if a potentially hazardous asteroid ever had to be diverted.

In order to gauge the success of the sample collection effort, OSIRIS-REx’s team had to wait for imagery and data to be transmitted overnight. Lauretta said the crucial images were received at Lockheed Martin’s Mission Support Area near Denver at 2 a.m. and assembled into a video showing the full sampling operation.

“I must have watched it about a hundred times,” Lauretta said.

Just after the touch-and-go maneuver, the spacecraft began backing away from the asteroid surface. It’s due to go into a holding pattern at an altitude of about 50 miles (80 kilometers) on Oct. 23.

Although the initial indications look good, scientists aren’t yet certain whether the operation grabbed enough of a sample to satisfy the mission requirements.

In the days ahead, they’ll turn the sampling arm toward the spacecraft and capture imagery of the inside of the sample collection head. They’ll also spin the spacecraft and measure changes in its moment of inertia, to estimate how much extra mass is now being carried.

If scientists determine that less than 60 to 80 grams of material was collected, they could try again at a different site on the asteroid’s surface in January. But if they’re good to go, OSIRIS-REx will start heading back toward Earth next March, and drop off the sample capsule over Utah in 2023.

Lauretta said he hasn’t gotten much rest over the past few days. “Science never sleeps in these kinds of conditions,” he said.

Now he’s ready for a change.

“The only thing I’m looking forward to is maybe being able to sleep well tonight, knowing that we’ve had a job really well done,” he said.

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OSIRIS-REx touches down to grab bits of an asteroid

NASA’s OSIRIS-REx probe reached the climax of its seven-year round trip to deep space today and briefly touched down on a near-Earth asteroid, propelled by thrusters made in the Seattle area.

Scientists and engineers at Lockheed Martin’s Mission Support Area in Colorado received word at 4:12 p.m. MT (3:12 p.m. PT) that the touch-and-go maneuver at asteroid Bennu was successful, sparking cheers and fist-shaking. The maneuver was aimed at collecting samples of dust and gravel on the asteroid’s surface.

Mission team members wore masks and tried to observe social distancing as a COVID-19 safety measure, but some hugged nevertheless.

“I can’t believe we actually pulled this off,” said the University of Arizona’s Dante Lauretta, principal investigator for the mission. “The spacecraft did everything it was supposed to do.”

All 28 of the rocket engines on the van-sized OSIRIS-REx probe were built at Aerojet Rocketdyne’s facility in Redmond, Wash., and provided to Lockheed Martin, the spacecraft’s main contractor.

“The sample collection portion of the mission requires our engines to perform with extremely high precision, with no room for error,” Aerojet Rocketdyne’s CEO and president, Eileen Drake, said in a pre-touchdown news release.

Fred Wilson, the head of business development for space systems at Aerojet Rocketdyne Redmond, said there was “a lot of excitement” at the Seattle-area facility when the crucial maneuver took place.

“These engines that we built roughly six years ago and shipped off … they’re doing their job out there,” Wilson told me after the encounter.

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Asteroid Day serves as a teachable moment

Today’s 112th anniversary of a close brush with a cosmic catastrophe serves as a teachable moment about the perils and prospects posed by near-Earth asteroids.

Asteroid Day is timed to commemorate a blast from space that occurred over a Siberian forest back on June 30, 1908. The explosion, thought to have been caused by the breakup of an asteroid or comet, wiped out millions of acres of trees — but because the area was so remote, the death toll was minimal.

Because of the Tunguska blast and more recent close calls, such as the 2013 Chelyabinsk meteor blast, the threat from above is being taken more seriously. And although a Seattle-area asteroid mining venture called Planetary Resources fizzled, experts say the idea of extracting resources from near-Earth asteroids is worth taking seriously as well.

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OSIRIS-REx probe spots asteroid hurling chunks

Asteroid Bennu
This view of asteroid Bennu ejecting particles from its surface on Jan. 19 was created by combining two images taken by NASA’s OSIRIS-REx spacecraft. Other processing techniques were applied, such as cropping and adjusting the brightness and contrast of each image. (NASA / Goddard / Univ. of Arizona / Lockheed Martin)

NASA’s OSIRIS-REx spacecraft has spotted something that hasn’t been seen up close on an asteroid before: plumes of particles erupting into space.

The mission’s scientists shared pictures of the plumes as well as the unexpectedly rugged terrain on the asteroid, known as Bennu, today at the Lunar and Planetary Science Conference in The Woodlands, Texas. They also published a set of seven papers about their findings in the journal Nature.

“The discovery of plumes is one of the biggest surprises of my scientific career,” Dante Lauretta, OSIRIS-REx principal investigator at the University of Arizona, said in a news release. “And the rugged terrain went against all of our predictions. Bennu is already surprising us, and our exciting journey there is just getting started.”

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OSIRIS-REx enters close orbit around asteroid

OSIRIS-REx orbital path
An artist’s conception shows the OSIRIS-REx probe circling in to enter a close-in orbit around asteroid Bennu. (Univ. of Arizona / NASA Graphic)

NASA’s OSIRIS-REx spacecraft today maneuvered into an orbit that takes it within 4,000 feet of the surface of Bennu, a diamond-shaped asteroid that’s 70 million miles from Earth.

The orbit sets a record for interplanetary travel. The quarter-mile-wide asteroid is now the smallest body ever orbited by a spacecraft, and the spacecraft is tracing the closest sustained orbit around a celestial body.

Bennu beat out Comet 67P/Churyumov-Gerasimenko, the 2.5-mile-wide comet that the European Space Agency’s Rosetta probe circled from 2014 to 2016. OSIRIS-REx orbits about a mile from Bennu’s center, while Rosetta’s orbit was 4 miles out from the comet’s center.

Today’s crucial eight-second burn of OSIRIS-REx’s thrusters, built by Aerojet Rocketdyne in Redmond, Wash., was executed perfectly, said University of Arizona planetary scientist Dante Lauretta, who serves as the mission’s principal investigator.

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OSIRIS-REx probe detects water on asteroid Bennu

Bennu
This mosaic image of the asteroid Bennu is composed of 12 PolyCam images collected on Dec. 2 by the OSIRIS-REx spacecraft from a range of 15 miles. A prominent boulder can be seen at lower right. (NASA / Goddard / University of Arizona Photo)

Just one week after the OSIRIS-REx spacecraft’s official arrival at the asteroid Bennu, the mission’s scientists have announced a significant find: Water appears to be locked inside the diamond-shaped mini-world’s clay minerals.

Two scientific instruments — known as the OSIRIS-REx Visible and Infrared Spectrometer or OVIRS, and the OSIRIS-REx Thermal Emission Spectrometer or OTES — registered the readings during the probe’s approach phase, which started in mid-August. The findings were shared today during the American Geophysical Union’s fall meeting in Washington, D.C.

Spectral measurements revealed the presence of molecules with bonded hydrogen and oxygen atoms, or hydroxyls. Scientists suspect that these hydroxyl groups are contained in clays that interacted with water long ago.

The quarter-mile-wide asteroid is too small to host liquid water, but researchers surmise that liquid water was present on Bennu’s parent body — perhaps a much larger asteroid — before it broke up.

“This is really big news. This is a great surprise,” Amy Simon, OVIRS deputy instrument scientist at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center, said today during an AGU news briefing.

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OSIRIS-REx probe reaches asteroid Bennu

Asteroid Bennu
An image taken by the OSIRIS-REx probe last month shows the asteroid Bennu from a distance of about 40 miles. (NASA / Goddard / Univ. of Arizona Photo)

NASA’s OSIRIS-REx today made its official rendezvous with a promising and potentially perilous asteroid named Bennu, after two years of closing in on it.

“We have arrived,” telecommunications engineer Javi Cerna announced during a NASA webcast from mission control at Lockheed Martin Space in Colorado.

It’s a major step in OSIRIS-REx’s mission to study a near-Earth object at close range and snag samples for return to Earth in 2023.

The car-sized spacecraft has been creeping up on the 0.3-mile-wide (half-kilometer-wide), diamond-shaped space rock for weeks, but today a 28-second thruster firing stabilized its position at a point less than 12 miles (20 kilometers) away from the asteroid (and more than 75 million miles or 121 million kilometers from Earth).

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Asteroid probe sees a diamond in the sky

Two years after its launch, NASA’s OSIRIS-REx spacecraft is closing in on a near-Earth asteroid named Bennu and sending back pictures that provide one gem of a 360-degree view.

On Nov. 2, OSIRIS-REx captured imagery over the course of a four-hour, 11-minute period to take in a full rotation of the diamond-shaped space rock from a distance of about 122 miles.

The view is whetting astronomers’ appetite for even closer looks at Bennu, which is currently about 80 million miles from Earth. Over the next few weeks, OSIRIS-REx will carefully survey the quarter-mile-wide asteroid’s terrain as it edges closer. During December, it’ll execute three flybys, coming within just a few miles of the surface. And early next year, it’ll settle into a close-in orbit and conduct a months-long survey.

All that’s just a buildup for the main event: the probe’s descent to the surface in mid-2020 for the collection of samples that will be packed up for delivery to Earth in 2023.

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New Horizons and OSIRIS-REx spot their targets

Ultima Thule
The picture on the left was created by adding 48 different exposures from the LORRI camera on NASA’s New Horizons probe. The picture on the right has been processed to subtract the light from background stars, leaving an icy object known as Ultima Thule shining dimly in the crosshairs. (NASA / JHUAPL / SwRI Photo)

The next few months are due to bring two amazing interplanetary encounters: a rendezvous with an asteroid and a flyby past a mysterious icy object beyond Pluto on the solar system’s edge. Over the past few days, we’ve gotten our first fleeting peeks at both targets, and the view will only get better from now on.

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NASA shows off OSIRIS-REx’s snapshot of Earth

OSIRIS-REx view of Earth
This color composite image of Earth was taken by the MapCam camera on NASA’s OSIRIS-REx spacecraft on Sept. 22, just hours after the spacecraft completed its Earth gravity assist maneuver at a range of about 106,000 miles. (NASA GSFC / Univ. of Arizona Photo)

During last week’s flyby, NASA’s OSIRIS-REx spacecraft captured a stunning portrait of Earth’s disk, spanning the Pacific from Australia to America’s West Coast.

The color composite image, created from readings that were captured on Sept. 22 while the asteroid probe zoomed past at an altitude of 106,000 miles, was released by NASA and the University of Arizona today.

You can make out Australia at lower left, and the southwestern U.S. at upper right.

The photo op arose because OSIRIS-REx’s mission navigators took advantage of Earth’s gravitational field to slingshot the 20-foot-wide probe toward the asteroid Bennu, which it’s due to reach in late 2018.

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