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NASA made history Tuesday after a spacecraft successfully collected samples from the surface of an asteroid during a carefully orchestrated, hourslong maneuver in orbit.
After spending nearly two years circling the near-Earth asteroid Bennu, NASA’s OSIRIS-REx spacecraft used its robotic arm to gather pieces of the space rock that will subsequently be sent to Earth for study. The event marks an important milestone for NASA: It’s the first time the agency has gathered samples from an asteroid in space.
“We did it,” Dante Lauretta, the principal investigator for the OSIRIS-REx mission, said during NASA’s live broadcast of the event. “We've tagged the surface of the asteroid.”
The samples are expected to be delivered to Earth in September 2023, according to NASA. Scientists have said that the precious materials from Bennu’s surface could reveal intriguing insights into how the solar system came to be. Asteroids are pristine collections of the ancient ingredients that formed the solar system about 4.5 billion years ago, so studying the chemical properties of space rocks could unlock secrets about planets and the origins of life on Earth.
The OSIRIS-REx mission is NASA’s first to collect samples from an asteroid, but it was not the first ever. That distinction belongs to Japan’s Hayabusa mission, which delivered to Earth a few micrograms of material from the asteroid Itokawa in 2010. A second mission, named Hayabusa2, collected a small sample from the asteroid Ryugu in February 2019. The spacecraft is slated to return to Earth in December with the sample onboard.
Yuichi Tsuda, project manager for the Hayabusa2 mission at the Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency, expressed his support for the OSIRIS-REx mission, tweeting Tuesday: “Tomorrow, a new door opens for solar system exploration. The [OSIRIS-REx] team should be able to achieve great results with the right decisions and exquisite control. Keep safe, and Godspeed!”
As a near-Earth asteroid, Bennu could also help researchers understand more about space rocks that pose a threat to the planet, as well as how these celestial bodies could be mined for valuable resources in the future.
The OSIRIS-REx spacecraft (short for Origins, Spectral Interpretation, Resource Identification, Security-Regolith Explorer) has been orbiting Bennu from an altitude of approximately 2,500 feet but spent several hours Tuesday descending toward the asteroid’s surface.
The spacecraft is equipped with an 11-foot-long robotic arm that reached down and grabbed samples from the space rock. Shortly after 6 p.m. EDT, the spacecraft’s arm touched down at a landing site dubbed Nightingale that NASA said is roughly the size of a few parking spaces.
The entire maneuver, which NASA likened to a “high five” with Bennu, took about 4 1/2 hours. The spacecraft was in contact with the asteroid for fewer than 16 seconds, and the van-sized probe was designed to gather at least 2 ounces of rubble from the surface.
After the “touch-and-go” operation, OSIRIS-REx fired its thrusters to safely back away from Bennu.
The $800 million OSIRIS-REx mission launched in September 2016 and the spacecraft arrived at Bennu roughly two years later. The probe has been mapping the asteroid’s surface, studying its composition and beaming back photos of the space rock, which is about as tall as the Empire State Building, according to NASA.
Bennu is located more than 200 million miles away from Earth but has an orbit that can swing it to within 4.6 million miles of the planet. As such, Bennu and other near-Earth asteroids are classified as potentially hazardous objects. NASA’s Planetary Defense Coordination Office has calculated that there is a 1 in 2,700 chance of Bennu hitting Earth sometime between the years 2175 and 2199.