NASA currently has an orbiter circling the asteroid Bennu about 200 million miles from Earth, and a live streamed attempt to collect a sample from its surface will be made next week.
The mission, OSIRIS-REx (Origins, Spectral Interpretation, Resource Identification, Security-Regolith Explorer), was developed to help improve our understanding of asteroid impact risks and study how planets and life in the universe began. After a two-year-long journey through deep space, Bennu’s surface has been studied by the orbiter extensively since its arrival in 2018 in preparation for its historic mission. If successful, the craft will land on the asteroid and gather a 2.1 ounce sample that will be returned to our planet in 2023.
“Bennu contains material from the early solar system and may contain the molecular precursors to life and Earth’s oceans,” NASA’s announcement of the live stream detailed. “The asteroid is about as tall as the Empire State Building and could potentially threaten Earth late in the next century, with a 1‐in‐2,700 chance of impacting our planet during one of its close approaches.”
NASA’s live web cast of the event will begin at 6:12 pm EDT on Tuesday, October 20th. Press briefings and other social media activities will be held on October 19th beginning at 1 pm EDT.
OSIRIS-REx, which is about 20 feet long and 10 feet high with its solar panels extended, has a two-part system to collect its asteroid sample. The first, a Touch-And-Go Sample Acquisition Mechanism (TAGSAM), is an articulated robotic arm with a sampler head that extends to the surface to gather regolith. Second, a Sample Return Capsule (SRC), acts as a container with a heat shield and parachutes that will both protect the asteroid regolith and enable reentry into Earth’s atmosphere. The mission is the first of its kind for NASA. Its predecessor is Japan’s Hayabusa mission which returned from with its asteroid sample in 2010.
NASA has been hard at work over the last decade with its deep space missions. Most recently, the agency’s Insight lander has been making progress studying “Marsquakes” after arriving on Mars in 2018. The newest Mars rover, Perseverance, is en route to the red planet where it will collect a sample of its own from the surface to return to Earth in a future mission. That mission also includes the first rotary craft experiment that will attempt flight on another planet.
Another mission similar to OSIRIS-REx is NASA’s DART (Double Asteroid Redirection Test) spacecraft, scheduled to launch aboard a SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket in July 2021. DART will crash into the asteroid Didymos in 2022, and a European Space Agency orbiter will head to the asteroid in 2023 to study the event’s effects on the space object. Collected data will help formulate planetary defense plans by providing detailed analysis from DART’s real-time asteroid deflection experiment.