Updated: Oct 18, 2021
On Oct. 20, NASA’s Osiris-Rex spacecraft briefly landed on the asteroid Bennu in a mission to collect dust. The Osiris-Rex spacecraft confirmed its brief contact with asteroid Bennu more than 200 miles away, but it could be over a week before scientists know how much was grabbed and whether another try will be needed. If successful, Osiris-Rex will return with samples in 2023. “The spacecraft did everything it was supposed to do,” lead scientist Dante Lauretta of the University of Arizona told The Guardian.
While this is the first time that the spacecraft has landed to obtain samples, it has been orbiting Asteroid Bennu for nearly two years, observing it in detail. This resulted in the closest orbit for a spacecraft around an object, setting a Guinness World Record. It’s also the smallest body to be orbited by a NASA spacecraft. And Bennu has now been mapped in greater detail than the moon or any other celestial body in the solar system.
Since the asteroid is only 1,670 feet across, Bennu’s gravity was too low for Osiris-Rex to land. As a result, the spacecraft had to reach out with its 11-foot robot arm and attempt to grab at least two ounces of asteroid dust from Bennu. “We are on the way to returning the largest sample brought home from space since Apollo. If all goes well, this sample will be studied by scientists for generations to come,” NASA administrator Jim Bridenstine told CNN.
Rather than the sandy beach-like surface the mission team was expecting, Bennu was covered in large boulders that were almost the size of buildings. The asteroid is also actively pushing out rocks, pebbles, and particles into space, as first witnessed by the spacecraft’s cameras soon after arriving at the asteroid in December 2018.
News sources have stated that the asteroid turned out to be hollow, and has a “large void” at the center. “It’s as if there is a void in the center, within which you could fit a couple of football fields,” University of Colorado researcher Daniel Scheeres told Business Insider.
The spacecraft orbited asteroid Bennu for nearly two years, observing it in detail. This resulted in the closest orbit for a spacecraft around an object, setting a Guinness World Record. It’s also the smallest body to be orbited by a NASA spacecraft. And Bennu has now been mapped in greater detail than the moon or any other celestial body in the solar system.
“The rocks tell their history through the craters they accumulated over time. We haven’t observed anything like this since astronauts walked on the moon,” Ronald Ballouz, a postdoctoral researcher in the UArizona Lunar and Planetary Laboratory and a scientist with the OSIRIS-REx regolith development working group, told SciTechDaily.
Due to the asteroid’s rocky nature, which could have been dangerous for the spacecraft attempting to collect a sample from it, the mission team had to pick its collection site carefully and shrink the landing site to one-tenth of its original size. “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,” Bridenstine said.
Through Teen Lenses: What are your opinions on the Osiris-Rex? What are your hopes in the future for NASA spacecrafts?
“This is definitely one of the biggest accomplishments that NASA has made this year, and it’s really exciting that COVID isn’t restricting us from continuing research and moving forward with projects that were time-sensitive.” Sophie King, 15, Sophomore at Thomas Jefferson High School for Science and Technology, McLean, Virginia
“The spacecraft seems really well planned out, in my opinion, because they got successful results in the first trial. I can imagine that if the mission failed, it would take at least 5 years to try again, so making sure that they did a good job the first time is important and it’s good that they prioritized that.” Emma Cox, 15, Sophomore at Thomas Jefferson High School for Science and Technology, Fairfax, Virginia
“We usually don’t realize how long these missions take, because they have to make calculations really carefully and it takes years for these projects to take off. I’m really excited to see what the results show, because I know that this is a really big deal and we could learn a lot from this recent asteroid sample.” Simrith Ranjan, 15, Sophomore at Thomas Jefferson High School for Science and Technology, Ashburn, Virginia