Oct. 20 (UPI) — NASA’s OSIRIS-REx on Tuesday evening will attempt to scoop a sample of rocks and dirt from asteroid Bennu to return to earth.
The historic “touch and go” event featuring animation displaying OSIRIS-REx’s — Origins, Spectral Interpretation, Resource Identification, Security, Regolith Explorer — sample collection activities in real time will be livestreamed on Space.com, from 1:20 p.m. EST to 6:30 p.m. EST, courtesy of NASA Television.
NASA TV will also go live on YouTube at 5:00 p.m. EST for the final approach and attempt at grabbing a sample.
The craft will execute a series of maneuvers over the course of several hours before making soft contact with the surface of the asteroid to collect regolith, or rocks and dirt, at 6:12 p.m. EST.
“It will be four and a half hours of anxiousness,” Beth Buck, OSIRIS-REx mission operations manager at Lockheed Martin Space, said in a news conference ahead of the event.
Buck made a comparison to the descent of a spacecraft on Mars, when there is typically “seven minutes of terror.”.
The goal is to learn more about the solar system’s history and help “planetary defense” engineers with missions to protect earth from rogue asteroids. Bennu is believed to be a window into the solar system’s past since it’s a pristine, carbon-rich body carrying building blocks of both planets and life.
At 1:50 p.m. EST, NASA expects to receive word the spacecraft has left orbit before starting to execute a series of burns to position itself over a sampling area nicknamed Nightingale.
Once in position, the craft will start it’s approach to the asteroid at 5:50 p.m. EST, with soft contact coming around 6:12 p.m. EST. It will then spend about 15 seconds attempting to collect the regolith sample before backing away again.
The area, which is only 52 feet in diameter, will make for a more demanding landing than expected, Kenneth Getzandanner, OSIRIS-REx flight dynamics manager at the NASA Goddard Space Flight Center in Maryland, said in the news conference.
The original mission called for a landing “zone” about 150% larger than Nightingale, at 82 feet, but that changed because Bennu was more rocky than expected.
Buck said there are ways to abort the mission as high as 410 feet if the touchdown area looks to rocky to make a safe collection, but the chance of that happening is less than 6%.
The goal is to collect at least 1.7 ounces of fine-grained material, but the spacecraft can carry up to 4.4 pounds, Heather Enos, OSIRIS-REx deputy principal investigator at the University of Arizona said.
“I would love for that capsule to be completely full,” Enos said.
Though early images from the asteroid should hint at whether the mission succeeded, it will take engineers roughly 10 days to compare and analyze the mass before and after the maneuver to actually know how much dirt is inside the OSIRIS-REx.
The spacecraft is expected to return to Earth, with the regolith sample from Bennu, in 2023.