ORLANDO, Fla. – A NASA spacecraft briefly smooched the surface of a potentially hazardous asteroid more than 200 million miles away on Tuesday successfully conducting the first U.S. asteroid sample attempt but it will be a few days before we know how much it picked up.
A muted affair by NASA standards due to the coroanvirus pandemic, cheers and celebrations could still be heard from the OSIRIS-REx spacecraft team after the event, a decade in the making, happened without so much as a single ounce of drama.
In a time of uncertainty the mission offered a flawless approach to uncharted territory from launch to the quick “touch and go” or TAG maneuver to collect the sample from the 500-meter-wide asteroid called Bennu.
“This mission has almost been like clockwork,” spacecraft science team member and UCF Associate Prof. Kerri Donaldson Hanna said. “The launch window opens and then the rocket took off, right?”
As anyone in Florida knows, rocket launches can often face multiple delays but OSIRIS-REx was right on time. Since that day more than four years ago everything has really been going to plan.
Donaldson Hanna is one of two University of Central Florida faculty serving on the NASA mission, including UCF planetary scientist Humberto Campins. Both taught classes on Tuesday sharing the excitement with their students.
Launching from Cape Canaveral in September 2016 on a United Launch Alliance rocket, the passenger-van-sized spacecraft traveled for two years to catch up with asteroid Bennu, where it has been orbiting since December 2018 and preparing for a moment that would last seconds but provide a lifetime of information about our solar system.
OSIRIS-REx, which stands for Origins, Spectral Interpretation, Resource Identification, Security, Regolith Explorer, conducted the TAG maneuver just before 6:12 p.m. ET using its pogo-stick-like arm to push into asteroid, deploying a gas to stir up materials, hopefully and collect up to four and a half pounds of space rock and dust. The area on Bennu where it “tagged” the asteroid was nicknamed Nightingale.
“I can’t believe we actually pulled this off,” said the mission’s lead scientist Dante Lauretta, of the University of Arizona. “The spacecraft did everything it was supposed to do.”
Heather Enos, deputy scientist with University of Arizona, described the spacecraft move as “kissing the surface with a short touch-and-go" in just five seconds. It was all over before teams on Earth even knew it happened because of the time delay between Earth and Bennu.
“It was a great feeling," Campins said of the moment leading up to and after the TAG. "Because even though we were distributed here at NASA Goddard in Maryland, at Lockheed Martin in Colorado ... I’m in Tucson, and it was a great sense of camaraderie, and we were all expecting these results.”
Under normal circumstances more team members would have been there to celebrate at Mission Control for spacecraft builder Lockheed Martin and at the University of Arizona but with the coronavirus virtual events helped those who couldn’t be there stay in the loop and congratulate each other on the achievement.
Donaldson Hanna watched the final moments on her big screen TV at home while also on the team Zoom, meanwhile Campins, who was in Tuscon, Arizona was also on the team virtual chat.
“They were giving updates throughout the afternoon,” Donaldson Hanna said. "And everyone was sending, you know, words of encouragement and excitement and we could hear how each of the navigation images were coming down and how those looked.”
While it wasn’t the same as being there with the team the results will be worth it if the spacecraft collected between 60 grams and four pounds of Bennu to bring back to Earth.
“The main thing is we achieved the most dangerous phase of the mission,” Campins said. “We were just able to bring that spacecraft into a really rugged environment and sample that surface and move away safely.”
Next the spacecraft will perform a little twirl to help determine just how much it picked up from the rocky asteroid. That is expected to happen no earlier than Saturday.
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
Donaldson Hanna explained OSIRIS-REx will stick out the TAG arm, then “they’ll spin the spacecraft and use the understanding of the moment of inertia to estimate how much mass they collected and so at that point, that will decide if we have enough sample to return it to Earth, or if they’re going to have to try to do another TAG.”
Bennu was chosen for several reasons, including that it could one day-- in a very long time-- hit our home planet.
Studying the asteroid in space up close and when the asteroid sample is dropped on Earth in 2023 will help scientists learn how to deflect a potentially hazardous asteroid like it.
Besides the benefit to Earth’s security, Bennu is also full of clues to how our planet and others formed.
"It preserves the same composition that it had when it formed about 4.5 billion years ago,” Campins said. “And so that itself tells us about the conditions in the solar nebula, this cloud of gas and dust that form the planets and the sun.”
In the days to come, OSIRIS-REx will send back the closest pictures of the space rock yet offering a new round of discoveries to be made.