A NASA probe orbiting an asteroid about 100 million miles from Earth would make a risky attempt to grab a sample from the rocky surface of the celestial body to carry home the first handful of pristine asteroid rocks from space.
Scientists said, “NASA’s minivan-sized OSIRIS-REx spacecraft will begin a four-hour descent toward the rugged surface of the Bennu asteroid, whose acorn-shaped body, formed in the early days of our solar system, could hold clues to the origins of life on Earth”.
At 22:12 GMT, the spacecraft will be close enough to perform a meticulous five-second ‘touch-and-go’ technique by autonomously extending its 11-foot (3.35 m) robotic arm toward a flat patch of gravel roughly the size of a basketball court near Bennu’s north pole.
A planetary scientist at NASA said, “A lot of things could go wrong because the spacecraft’s about the size of a van, and the asteroid has a lot of boulders in it. So we have to go between the boulders to get our sample, and a lot of planning went into that.”
The spacecraft was launched from the Kennedy Space Center to Bennu in 2016. For almost two years, it has been orbiting around the asteroid by planning for the “touch and go” operation.
For five seconds, a collection device attached to the arm and shaped like an oversized showerhead can hit the surface of Bennu and blast out a burst of nitrogen gas, stirring up debris and trapping rocky material within the sampling head of the device.
If successful, a few hours after the attempt, ground controllers will confirm the capturing of the Bennu remnants. In September 2023, the samples obtained are expected to arrive here on Earth, encased in a special return capsule. Japan is the only other country that has done this before.
Asteroids are among the remaining debris from the formation of the solar system around 4.5 billion years ago.
Scientists believe that in the early days of the earth, asteroids and comets may have introduced organic compounds and water that have seeded the planet for life. Analysis of Bennu samples at the atomic level may provide crucial evidence to support the hypothesis.