For the first time ever, a NASA probe has performed a sample-snagging operation on an asteroid in deep space.
The agency’s OSIRIS-REx spacecraft spiraled down to the surface of the near-Earth asteroid Bennu this afternoon (Oct. 20) to grab material that mission team members hope harbors clues about the solar system’s early days and the rise of life on Earth.
“We did it!” OSIRIS-REx principal investigator Dante Lauretta, of the University of Arizona, said during a webcast that provided updates about today’s maneuver. “We tagged the surface of the asteroid, and it’s up to Bennu now to see how the event went.”
The goal was to collect at least 60 grams (2.1 ounces) of dirt and gravel from Bennu’s rubbly surface. It could take up to 10 days to determine if OSIRIS-REx achieved this aim, mission team members have said. And it’s not a disaster if the asteroid haul turns out to be a little light; the probe can go back down for two more tries if need be.
“This amazing first for NASA demonstrates how an incredible team from across the country came together and persevered through incredible challenges to expand the boundaries of knowledge,” NASA Administrator Jim Bridenstine said in a statement after the touchdown.
“Our industry, academic, and international partners have made it possible to hold a piece of the most ancient solar system in our hands.”
Lauretta and his fellow OSIRIS-REx scientists and engineers watched over today’s asteroid sample-snatching attempt from a mission operations center at Lockheed Martin Space in Littleton, Colorado. (Lockheed Martin built the spacecraft for NASA.) And while the mood was certainly jubilant, the impact of the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic was clear.