4 years in the past, NASA launched its OSIRIS-REx spacecraft from Cape Canaveral. Two years in the past, the spacecraft lastly reached its goal of the carbon-rich, Earth-adjacent asteroid Bennu. At this time, OSIRIS-REx (the Origins, Spectral Interpretation, Useful resource Identification, Safety-Regolith Explorer) will fulfill its unique mission and accumulate a rock and mud pattern of at the very least two ounces from the asteroid—the most important pattern of its form ever collected.
The mission has been no simple feat for the NASA engineers concerned. The engineers chosen Bennu out of 500,000 potential asteroids within the Photo voltaic System due to its proximity to the Earth, comparatively sluggish rotation, carbon-heavy chemical composition, and enormous diameter of roughly 500 meters. After choosing the asteroid, the engineers charted a course for the craft and, roughly two years after the launch in September of 2016, it started to orbit the asteroid. For the previous two years, OSIRIS-REx has been in orbit, taking images and 3D scans of the asteroid’s floor to measure its temperature, rock mineral content material, and x-ray emissions. Bennu is the smallest object that any NASA spacecraft has ever orbited.
The pattern collected at the moment may maintain vital info that may permit scientists to raised perceive the origins of life on Earth. The pattern may also be used for extra sensible functions, like figuring out whether or not it’s attainable to make use of the fabric that includes asteroids like Bennu to maintain human life on Mars or different planets. When the spacecraft lastly returns the pattern to Earth in 2023, it will likely be studied extensively for years to return.
OSIRIS-REx will use a robotic arm referred to as TAGSAM (Contact and Go Pattern Acquisition Mechanism) to seize a fistful of free mud and rock referred to as regolith from the floor of the asteroid with out ever truly touchdown. The spacecraft has loads of time and sufficient gasoline for 3 makes an attempt at accumulating a pattern from the asteroid.
“It’s a really secure means (if such a factor exists) to retrieve a pattern from an asteroid,” Wealthy Kuhns, Lockheed Martin’s OSIRIS-REx undertaking supervisor, instructed In style Science earlier than the preliminary launch of the spacecraft in 2016. “Because you simply should keep in touch with the asteroid, the expertise permits us to gather our pattern in solely three to five seconds.”
Nonetheless, the gathering mission isn’t as simple as OSIRIS-REx simply reaching out from its orbit and grabbing a bunch of rock. The gathering website is hazardous, and NASA engineers will probably be issuing directions to the spacecraft from Earth, which it’s going to perform autonomously. The craft can also be designed with these hazards in thoughts and can carry out a number of automated capabilities to make sure that the mission is profitable.
“The photo voltaic panels will pull again safely away to allow them to’t contact Bennu’s floor,” stated Roger Harris, who served as Venture Supervisor for OSIRIS-REx work at IV&V, in a NASA publish. “The Pure Characteristic Monitoring system will allow the spacecraft to drag again earlier than the spacecraft is at risk of colliding with a hazardous space of the ‘Nightingale’ touchdown website, which whereas our greatest choice for gathering floor materials, is surrounded by huge mission-ending boulders.”
You may watch stay protection of the mission tonight beginning at 5pm EDT. If all goes properly and the pattern is collected by OSIRIS-REx with out a hitch, the spacecraft will nonetheless have fairly an extended solution to go earlier than it’s acquired at dwelling. Due to variations in orbital alignments, it won’t start its return journey till 2021. Then, the spacecraft ought to journey dwelling and contact down in Utah with its pattern in 2023.