Over 200 million miles away, NASA’s OSIRIS-REx spacecraft on Tuesday unfurled its robotic arm and descended to the surface of the asteroid Bennu. It appeared to crush some rock as it touched down, quickly fired some nitrogen gas to kick up the sample and then after 5 or 6 seconds it flew away to safety after a back-away burn.
One day after the “tag,” NASA officials announced that the sample collection appeared to have been it to be a successful, and they released images and video of the dramatic scoop. The spacecraft touched down within three feet of the Nightingale target location and NASA officials said that most of the sample collection occurred in the first three seconds.
The sample will consist of grains of a surface that has experienced none of the ever-active geology on Earth, no modifications caused by life, and little of the erosion and weathering. In other words, it will be a sample of the very early solar system from which our planet arose.
The asteroid visit is the first ever accomplished by NASA, following in the path set by the Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency (JAXA) and its two Hayabusa missions.
“This amazing first for NASA demonstrates how an incredible team from across the country came together and persevered through incredible challenges to expand the boundaries of knowledge,” said NASA Administrator Jim Bridenstine. “Our industry, academic, and international partners have made it possible to hold a piece of the most ancient solar system in our hands.”
While it remains somewhat unclear how much sample was collected by OSIRIS-REx, the mission’s principal investigator, Dante Lauretta of the University of Arizona, said he was optimistic.
The sampling mechanism touched down in part on a rock about 8 inches wide, something that could have prevented the gathering mechanism from pressing up properly against the surface.
“I must have watched about a hundred times last night,” Lauretta, said during a news conference on Wednesday.