It was scripted to happen this way, but when it did what it was supposed to do, ground controllers and scientists elation was clearly evident. What had just happened? A spacecraft, OSIRIS-REx, had just “touched” down, albeit it for seconds, on asteroid Bennu, grabbed a bunch of “dust and pebbles,” and taken off again with its prize. It lasted mere seconds, yet took years to make happen.
Asteroid Bennu is a “well-preserved, ancient asteroid” which is “currently more than 200 million miles (321 million kilometers) from Earth. Bennu offers scientists a window into the early solar system as it was first taking shape billions of years ago and flinging ingredients that could have helped seed life on Earth. If Tuesday’s sample collection event, known as ‘Touch-And-Go’ (TAG), provided enough of a sample, mission teams will command the spacecraft to begin stowing the precious primordial cargo to begin its journey back to Earth in March 2021. Otherwise, they will prepare for another attempt in January.”
Thomas Zurbuchen, associate administrator for NASA’s Science Mission Directorate said “this was an incredible feat – and today we’ve advanced both science and engineering and our prospects for future missions to study these mysterious ancient storytellers of the solar system. A piece of primordial rock that has witnessed our solar system’s entire history may now be ready to come home for generations of scientific discovery, and we can’t wait to see what comes next.”
“After over a decade of planning, the team is overjoyed at the success of today’s sampling attempt,” said Dante Lauretta, OSIRIS-REx principal investigator at the University of Arizona in Tucson. “Even though we have some work ahead of us to determine the outcome of the event – the successful contact, the TAGSAM gas firing, and back-away from Bennu are major accomplishments for the team. I look forward to analyzing the data to determine the mass of sample collected.”