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Contact between OSIRIS-REx and asteroid Bennu happened as expected

On October 20, OSIRIS-REx touched down on Bennu. However, the project scientists will only know the sample amount that the spacecraft collected from the asteroid after several days. The mission went as planned in all ways. For instance, it touched down on the intended location, which is the Nightingale. The sampling arm also extended as expected and touched the asteroid’s crater. Equally important, OSIRIS-REx retracted a soon as the Touch-and-Go Sample Acquisition Mechanism (TAGSAM) contacted Bennu for several seconds. It was a touch-and-go (TAG) mission, no doubt. The exact time the OSIRIS-REx spacecraft touched down on the Bennu asteroid was 6:12 p.m. Eastern.

Dante Lauretta, who works at the University of Arizona as OSIRIS-REx’s principal investigator, confirmed the mission’s success. His words while speaking on NASA TV were that the operation was perfect and flawless.

The capacity of the TAGSAM is 2 kilograms. However, all the scientists wanted to collect was 60 grams. Nevertheless, whether they achieved that or not remains a mystery. After all, according to the mission, the spacecraft would return neither data nor images then. Not until there was a safe distance between it and the asteroid.

After the touch-down, TAGSAM, which resembled a car air filter hard to go unnoticed, fired a nitrogen gas’ burst. The impact kicked up small surface material. At the same time, the gadget trapped the materials.

Lauretta can’t wait to see the impact of the touch-down on the surface. He said that it would be possible to witness all that from a series of images. They will show how the spacecraft ascended towards the asteroid and experiences of both the contact and the nitrogen gas burst.

Speaking from NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center, Mike Moreau, in charge of OSIRIS-REx as the deputy project manager, discussed some probabilities. He predicted a considerable sample collection if the TAG’s disturbance on the satellite’s surface was massive. That would also be if the surface were sandy since a nitrogen gas burst did the collection. It would disturb a sandy surface significantly.

By measuring the moment of inertia before and after sampling, the team will have a rough idea of the collected sample amount. The measurement will occur once experts have slowly span OSIRIS-REx. Fortunately, the spacecraft can carry out another sampling if the collection turns out to be unsuccessful, or the sample size isn’t at least 60 grams.

However, the mission didn’t lack surprises either. Earlier images showed that Bennu was sandy, but OSIRIS-REx found a relatively rocky surface. The spacecraft will leave Bennu environs in March 2021. However, the samples won’t reach Earth until September 2023, when a canister carrying the spaceship will land in the Utah desert. Then, scientists will study the samples.

 

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By Christopher Stern

Christopher Stern is a Washington-based reporter. Chris spent many years covering tech policy as a business reporter for renowned publications. He has extensive experience covering Congress, the Federal Communications Commission, the Federal Trade Commission, and other federal agencies. He is a graduate of Middlebury College.
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