NASA’s first attempt to sample an asteroid in space made a mess, but it’s the best mess ever, scientists say
A NASA spacecraft has really made a mess of things on the asteroid Bennu, and scientists are thrilled. The spacecraft, NASA’s OSIRIS-REx probe, briefly touched down on Bennu Tuesday afternoon (Oct. 21) in the space agency’s first-ever attempt to collect samples of an asteroid. It will take time to confirm if OSIRIS-REx did, in fact, collect pieces of Bennu, but so far everything appears to have gone as planned. “We really did kind of make a mess on the surface of this asteroid. But it’s a good mess,” OSIRIS-REx principal investigator Dante Lauretta, of the University of Arizona, told reporters from the mission’s Lockheed Martin control center in Littleton, Colorado. “It’s the kind of mess we were hoping for.”
OSIRIS-REx touched a rocky region of Bennu called Nightingale with a spindly arm tipped with a hubcap-shaped collection plate. At the moment of contact, which lasted just 6 seconds, the spacecraft fired off a puff of nitrogen gas to essentially blow tiny pieces of the 1,640-foot-wide (500 meters) Bennu into its collection device. During Tuesday’s encounter, OSIRIS-REx could have crashed into Bennu, detected a problem and waved itself off or touched the surface but hit a big rock that made snatching smaller particles impossible. Any one of those scenarios could have spelled failure for the $800 million sample-return mission. But when the first images reached Earth in the wee hours of this morning, scientists were jubilant. “The spacecraft’s performance was phenomenal,” said Sandy Freund, OSIRIS-REx mission operations manager for Lockheed Martin, which built the spacecraft. The views from OSIRIS-REx showed a successful touchdown, a puff of rocky particles and a smooth departure from the asteroid Bennu.