Stunning images taken from the historic OSIRIS-REx mission show the moment the spacecraft touched down on the asteroid Bennu more than 200 million miles away from Earth to collect a sample of dirt and dust Tuesday night.
On Wednesday NASA unveiled videos and images showing the moment the spacecraft pulled off the six-second touch-and-go (TAG) mission where it bounced off the asteroid’s surface and picked up samples along the way.
The triumphant $1.16 billion mission is the first American effort to take a sample from an asteroid with the hopes to unlock secrets about the origin of life on Earth.
The sample will be returned to Earth in 2023.
The images show how the spacecraft descended within three feet of the target landing spot dubbed Nightingale on the asteroid while avoiding boulders the size of buildings. Then the spacecraft’s 11-foot robotic arm appeared to smash some porous rock upon initial contact on the surface.
A nitrogen gas bottle then fired on the surface to stir up material and suck it up in a ‘rubble shower’.
The spacecraft spent five seconds of the six seconds of contact collecting the material before backing away, with a majority of the sample collected in the first three seconds.
The team on Earth received confirmation at 6.08pm EDT that successful touchdown occurred.
After touchdown the spacecraft fired its thrusters to back away from the asteroid.
‘We are on the way to returning the largest sample brought home from space since Apollo. If all goes well, this sample will be studied by scientists for generations to come!’ NASA Administrator Jim Bridentine tweeted after touchdown.
The van-sized OSIRIS-Rex spacecraft is in ‘good health’ after the Tuesday mission, NASA said. The craft sent data and images to the mission team overnight.
While the mission was executed as planned, it will take about a week to determine how much sample was actually collected.
The required amount for the sample is about 60 grams, but the capsule can hold up to two kilograms of material.
Now mission engineers and scientists will study the images from the encounter to analyze changes to the sampling site. They’ll also direct the probe to take pictures of the collection arm to see if any particles stuck to the equipment.
On Saturday scientists will send the spacecraft into a slow spin with its robot arm extended to detect any changes in its mass from before the mission.
By the time flight controllers at Lockheed Martin Space in Littleton, Colorado heard back from Osiris-Rex, the action already happened 18 1/2 minutes earlier, the time it takes radio signals to travel each way between Bennu and Earth.
The mission was programmed in advance and the spacecraft was instructed to operate autonomously during the unprecedented touch-and-go maneuver.
‘Transcendental. I mean, I can’t believe we actually pulled this off,’ Dante Lauretta, the principal investigator of the mission, said after the landing was complete.
On Wednesday Lauretta said: ‘I must have watched it a hundred times last night. Particles are flying all over the place. We kind of made a mess on the surface of this asteroid. It’s the kind of mess we hoped for.’
NASA’s van-sized spacecraft with an Egyptian-inspired name has been orbiting Bennu, which is hurtling through space at 63,000 miles per hour, for nearly two years.
In the tedious 4.5-hour descent, the spacecraft touched down briefly for a handful of seconds on space rock with its arm in a landing site called Nightingale, a 52ft location in the northern hemisphere of the small asteroid the size of a few parking spaces on Earth.
As a result, Osiris-Rex had to reach out with its 11-foot robot arm while dodging massive boulders to grab samples.
The samples from Bennu could also help scientists understand more about asteroids that could catastrophically hit Earth.
Bennu is considered a near-Earth asteroid and one of its future approaches could bring it dangerously close to the planet sometime in the next century. It has a one in 2,700 chance of impacting our planet.
This is America’s first attempt to gather samples from an asteroid, something already accomplished by Japan — twice.
This marks the largest sample selection since the Apollo missions, which had the bonus of much more funding and humans on the surface to aid collection.
Bennu sits between Earth and Mars at a distance approximately 207 million miles (334 million kilometers) from our planet.
For NASA, this mission was a long time coming.
OSIRIS-REx, was launched four years ago in September 2016 to collect data and samples from the rare B-type asteroid.
B-type asteroids are primitive meaning they haven’t changed much since Earth was formed 4.5billion years ago and they could contain carbon-based organic molecules that are similar to the very ones that led to life on Earth.
OSIRIS-REx arrived at Bennu in December 2018 and has been orbiting the asteroid and surveying its surface, spin and practicing flying close to it ever since.
Japan expects samples from its second asteroid mission — in the milligrams at most — to land in the Australian desert in December.
NASA, meanwhile, plans to launch three more asteroid missions in the next two years, all one-way trips.