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NASA tags asteroid 200 million miles away, grabs samples

Asteroid (US Navy/Released)

A NASA probe touched a rocky, dusty asteroid 200 million miles from Earth today and collected samples that could date to the formation of the universe itself. It was a big success for the space agency in what is being called “one of the most ambitious space missions ever attempted.”

If the OSIRIS-REx probe can complete its remaining stay in the vicinity of the asteroid Bennu and return the samples home to Earth on schedule in 2023, scientists expect to learn about the early Solar System and perhaps clues about the origin of life on Earth. Asteroids circle the Sun just as the Earth does, and some scientists speculate asteroid fragments called meteorites may even have delivered “life-forming compounds” to our home planet.

All of that and more was justification for the mission and the source of hope for what it might produce, but Tuesday was a day for NASA and the mission team to celebrate in COVID-19 masks something big and never done before. Celebrating with the operations team was NASA’s Marshall Space Flight Center in Huntsville, Ala., which manages NASA’s New Frontiers Program of missions like OSIRIS-REx with medium price tags and high-science-return possibilities.

The operations team includes NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Maryland, which provided overall mission management; Dante Lauretta of the University of Arizona, Tucson, the lead mission scientist; and Lockheed Martin Space in Denver that built the spacecraft. The spacecraft’s name, OSIRIS-REx, stands for “Origins, Spectral Interpretation, Resource Identification, and Security-Regolith Explorer.”

The scope of the mission was huge. Bennu is about the size of the Empire State Building and 200 million miles away. It is a fragment NASA calls “a time capsule from the early solar system … preserved by the vacuum of space.” To make its grab-and-go, OSIRIS-REx fired its thrusters today to move out of orbit around Bennu, extended an 11-foot sampling arm, lowered that arm slowly to hover over the target site, and then touched the surface. There, it fired a burst of nitrogen gas to lift dust and small rocks into its sampling arm’s collector. The maneuver “was historic,” said Lori Glaze, Planetary Science Division director at NASA Headquarters in Washington.

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“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,” said NASA Administrator Jim Bridenstine. “Our industry, academic, and international partners have made it possible to hold a piece of the most ancient solar system in our hands.”

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