NASA’s Osiris-Rex probe has successfully made contact with an asteroid the size of the Empire State Building, offering a look into the earliest history of the Solar System.
Radio signals from over 200 million miles away confirm the spacecraft had successfully made contact with the 1600 foot-wide object known as Bennu.
The next step is obtain confirmation that the “grab and go” mission to obtain samples of dust and grit from the asteroid’s surface.
Sensors on the probe have already reported that all the actions in the sampling procedure had been completed successfully, and that the spacecraft had, as planned, backed away from Bennu after a few seconds of contact.
Now mission controllers in Denver, Colorado, face an agonising wait to find out whether the spacecraft does successfully have samples of the earliest building blocks of our Solar System onboard.
Assuming all has gone as planned, the samples should be returned to Earth for analysis on 2023. In the event that the sample chamber is empty, it will be possible to send Osiris-Rex back for another pass in a few days.
Scientists are hoping for something between 2 ounces and 4 pounds of Bennu’s black, crumbly, carbon-rich surface material. The material's of more than purely academic interest, Bennu has a small chance of colliding with the Earth between 2175 and 2199.
Nasa administrator Jim Bridenstine offered his congratulations to the mission controllers, saying: “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.”
Dante Lauretta from the University of Arizona, Tucson is one of the team leaders on the Osiris-Rex project. He told the BBC: ”The team is exuberant; emotions are high; everyone is really proud."
He added: “I can’t believe we actually pulled this off…the spacecraft did everything it was supposed to do.”
Thomas Zurbuchen, Nasa's associate administrator for science, added: ”This was the key milestone of this mission. Now it's a few days to figure out how much of this amazing sample we got that we've been thinking about for decades.”
The sample is scheduled to parachute into the Utah desert in 2023: “That will be another big day for us.," NASA scientist Lucy Lim said,"but this is absolutely the major event of the mission right now.”
Bennu is as old as the Solar System itself – formed tom the same cloud of cosmic debris that formed the Sun and all the planets 4.5 billion years ago.
Sara Russell from London's Natural History Museum says the sample return mission offers an unprecedented look at the origin of our world: ”Asteroids like Bennu formed in the very, very earliest times of the Solar System,” she said.
“They are basically the building blocks of the planets – a time capsule that will tell us how the Sun and the planets came into being and evolved. Bennu can really help us to drill down into how that process actually happens.”
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