A NASA spacecraft landed on the rugged surface of the Benu asteroid on Tuesday, bringing home samples of rock dating back to the time the solar system was born.
It was the first in the United States. Previously, only Japan had obtained asteroid samples.
The so-called “Touch-And-Go” operation was managed by Lockheed Martin Space in Denver, Colorado, and the announcer declared a “touch-down” at 6:12 PM GMT on Tuesday. Sampling is in progress,” the scientists erupted in congratulations.
A few seconds later, Lockheed mission operator Estelle Church confirmed that the spacecraft had fallen off space rock after contact and announced: “Sample collection is complete and retreat incineration has been performed.”
The historic mission took 12 years to build and took a break in a critical 16-second period when a minivan-sized OSIRIS-REx spacecraft extended an 11-foot (3.35 meter) robotic arm towards a flat gravel patch near Bennu’s North Pole. NASA’s first clean asteroid rock sample was taken.
The probe returns sample collection images Wednesday and throughout the week so scientists can investigate how much material has been recovered and determine whether the probe should make another collection attempt.
Scientists want at least 2 ounces (60 grams), ideally close to 4 pounds (2 kilograms) of Bennu’s black, brittle, carbon-rich material. It is thought to contain the components of the solar system. Asteroids are more than 200 million miles (321.9 million kilometers) from Earth.
Thomas Zurbuchen, director of science missions at NASA, likened Bennu to Rosetta Stone: “Something tells the history of our entire planet and our solar system over the past billions of years.”
Once a successful collection is confirmed, the spacecraft arrives in 2023 and begins its journey back to Earth.
“Everything went exactly perfectly,” said Dante Lauretta, chief investigator for OSIRIS-REx at the University of Arizona in Tucson, in a NASA live feed at Lockheed’s mission support building. “We have overcome the incredible challenges this asteroid has posed on us and the spacecraft seems to have worked perfectly.”
The robotic arm collecting device in the shape of a large shower head is designed to kick debris by releasing compressed gas.
It is a spacecraft launched in 2016 from the Kennedy Space Center for the journey to Benu. It’s been spinning around the asteroid for almost two years, preparing for Touch and Go maneuvers.
More than 4.5 billion years old, Bennu was chosen as a target because scientists believe it was a tiny piece of much larger space rock that was shattered by a collision between two asteroids early in solar history. system.
“Asteroids are like time capsules floating in space that can provide a fossil record of the birth of our solar system,” said Lori Glaze, director of planetary science at NASA, to Al Jazeera. “They can provide valuable information on how planets like ours came into being.”
Thanks to the data collected in orbit, the NASA team made two major discoveries. The first is that 5-10% of the mass of Bennu is water, and the second is that the surface is full of carbon-rich molecules. Atomic-level analysis of Bennu’s samples could help scientists better understand how asteroids played a role in bringing water to Earth and sprinkling prebiotic materials that provide the building blocks of life.
Studying the material can help scientists discover whether life exists elsewhere in the solar system.
Lauretta, chief investigator at OSIRIS-Rex, told Al Jazeera in an interview ahead of Tuesday’s breakthrough: “If this kind of chemistry occurred in the early solar system, it would have occurred in other solar systems as well. “It helps us assess the likelihood of the origin of life occurring throughout the galaxy and ultimately throughout the universe.”
Japan expects a sample of the second asteroid probe (up to milligram ME) to land in the Australian desert in December.