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Videos: NASA spacecraft lands on asteroid 200 million miles from Earth

Asteroid (US Navy/Released)
October 28, 2020

A NASA spacecraft landed on an asteroid flying through a stretch of space 200 million miles from Earth last Tuesday.

In a video of the maneuver, the spacecraft is seen making six seconds of contact with the asteroid, called Bennu, in order to suck up a sample of the extraterrestrial rock. NASA released footage on Wednesday that showcased the precarious operation.

Dubbed Osiris-Rex, the mission sought to return the sample of the asteroid back to earth, Business Insider reported. Bennu was rockier than researchers initially thought, however, adding complications to the already precarious landing. Large boulders and rock fields made it difficult to land and the safest spot was still fairly rugged.

Despite the uneven surface on Bennu, the Osiris-Rex probe successfully completed its 4-hour descent.

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“Transcendental. I can’t believe we actually pulled this off,” the mission’s principal investigator Dante Lauretta said during NASA’s live broadcast expedition. “The spacecraft did everything it was supposed to do.”

With the camera focused on the spacecraft’s extended sample-collecting arm, viewers could see the arm make contact with the asteroids surface, sending a flurry of dust and particles into the space surrounding it.

The asteroid’s surface rubble is a type of sandy dust known as regolith. During the landing, the arm of the spacecraft shot nitrogen gas at the asteroid, stirring up the rubble in the surrounding space before hopefully collecting a sample of the regolith.

According to Business Insider, the rock collected from Bennu could assist scientists in designing a plan to redirect it if its future path includes a potential impact with Earth.

When Osiris-Rex landed, it crushed the rock beneath it, which Lauretta said makes the collection of a good sample more likely. The sampling instrument is more likely to collect swirling, crushed rock.

“These rocks might be very weak compared to what we’re used to on Earth,” Lauretta said.

Bennu’s rock may be different from the extraterrestrial rock samples NASA has already collected. Meteorites that do land on Earth’s surface must be durable enough to make it through the Earth’s atmosphere.

Through an engineering partnership with Lockheed Martin, NASA will work to establish whether a sample of the regolith was collected by the spacecraft. The probe needs 2.1 ounces minimum to return to Earth. If Osiris-Rex did not collect enough regolith from Bennu, the spacecraft will give it another try on a backup site from a different part of the asteroid early next year.