Cape Canaveral, fl. – NASA spacecraft orbiting an ancient asteroid hundreds of millions of miles away almost two years later this week will try to land on a treacherous, rocky surface and snatch a few wrecks.
The play unfolds on Tuesday as the United States takes its first crack in collecting asteroid samples to return to Earth, which so far has only been achieved by Japan.
With names inspired by Egyptian mythology, the Osiris-Rex mission seeks to bring back at least 2 ounces (60 grams) of asteroid pen, the largest other-world mission beyond the moon.
The van-sized spacecraft is aimed at the relatively flat middle of a tennis court-sized abyss called the Nightingale – a place comparable to a few parking lots on Earth. There are large boulders like buildings on the target Downtown zone.
“So from some perspective, the next time you park your car in front of your house or in front of a coffee shop and walk inside, think about the challenge of guiding Osiris-Rex to one of these places 200 million miles away,” said NASA Deputy Project Manager Mike Morey.
Once out of its half-mile (0.75 km high) orbit around Penn, the spacecraft will deliberately take four hours.
The action ends when Osiris-Rex’s 11-foot (3.4-meter) arm comes out and touches the pen. The contact should last five to 10 seconds, long enough to expel the pressurized nitrogen gas and absorb the dirt and gravel. Pre-planned, the spacecraft will operate autonomously during unprecedented touch and maneuver. Ground controllers could not interfere with Lockheed Martin, the spacecraft builder near Denver, as there was an 18-minute lag in radio communications in every way.
If the first attempt does not work, Osiris-Rex may try again. None of the samples collected will reach Earth until 2023.
Although NASA has brought back particles of cometary dust and solar wind, it has never attempted to model one of the approximately 1 million known asteroids lurking in our solar system. Meanwhile, Japan expects to receive samples from the asteroid Ryuku in December – up to a maximum of milligrams – 10 years after bringing the glass from the asteroid Idokawa.
Pennu is an asteroid paradise.
The tallest, largest, blackest, roundest, most carbon-rich space rock in the world, when the Solar System was formed 4.5 billion years ago. Scientists consider it a time capsule full of beautiful building blocks that help explain how life evolved on Earth and elsewhere.
“It’s about understanding our origins,” said Dante Loretta of the University of Arizona.
There are also selfish reasons to get to know Pennu better.
The solar-orbiting asteroid, which orbits the Earth once every six years, could target us later in the next century. NASA puts the odds of an impact at 1 in 2,700. Scientists know more about threatening meteorites like Pennu, the safer Earth will be.
When Osiris-Rex erupted in 2016 at a cost of more than $ 800 million, scientists discovered sand extensions in the pen. The spacecraft is therefore designed to absorb smaller pebbles less than an inch (2 cm).
When the spacecraft arrived in 2018, scientists were stunned to find massive rocks and chunky gravel all over the place. More and more pebbles could occasionally be seen shooting the asteroid, falling backwards, and sometimes re-setting in the cosmic game of ping-pong.
With very rough terrain, the engineers aimed for a tighter space than initially expected. The Nightingale Gorge, the main target, appears to contain fine grains, but the rocks are still plentiful, known as the Mount Dome.
Then struck COVID-19.
The team fell behind and collided with the second and final Touch and Go costume rehearsal for the spacecraft for August. This pushed the sample crop to October.
“It’s hard to return a model,” said Thomas Surbuchen, NASA’s head of scientific work. “COVID made it even harder.”
Osiris-Rex contains three bottles of nitrogen gas, which means it touches the bottom three times – that is, no.
The spacecraft will automatically retreat if it encounters unexpected obstacles such as large rocks. It is likely to touch down safely, but has failed to collect enough debris.
In both, the spacecraft will return to orbit around Penn and attempt another location again in January.
Finally on the first try here, Loretta is worried, nervous, excited, and believes that “we have done everything we can to ensure a safe model”.