Origins, Spectral Interpretation, Resource Identification, Security, Regolith Explorer (OSIRIS-REx) spacecraft of NASA touched an asteroid in order to obtain pebbles and dust from its surface to further deliver to Earth in 2023.
The Lockheed Martin-built OSIRIS-REx spacecraft lowered an asteroid in the cold and dark of deep space and reached it with its robotic arm in order to obtain a sampling from its surface. The Touch-And-Go, or TAG, case, while brief, was years in the making.
Almost as tall as the Empire State Building, the ancient asteroid known as Bennu consists of preserved material from the origin of the solar system around 4.5 billion years ago, likely containing life on Earth’s organic molecular precursors.
“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.”
The Touch-And-Go Sample Acquisition System (TAGSAM) successfully reached the surface of the asteroid on NASA’s OSIRIS-REx spacecraft and fired one of its nitrogen gas canisters to stir and collect the sample of the surface material via a filter in the circular sampler head. The spacecraft then quietly backed away from the asteroid seconds later, starting to drift away till the material is assessed.
“It’s hard to put into words how exciting it was to receive confirmation that the spacecraft successfully touched the surface and fired one of the gas bottles,” said Michael Moreau, OSIRIS-REx deputy project manager at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Maryland. “The team can’t wait to receive the imagery from the TAG event late tonight and see how the surface of Bennu responded to the TAG event.”
The team would now take a couple of days to evaluate how much material, if any, was obtained using various techniques. The aim of the project is to extract at least 60 grams of regolith, around the size of a candy bar, and possibly obtain up to 2 kilograms.
“Our nation has explored the solar system and landed on multiple bodies, but this is the first time we have attempted to collect a sample of an asteroid. Even though Bennu has posed many challenges, the team made it look easy today,” said Lisa Callahan, vice president and general manager of Commercial Civil Space at Lockheed Martin. “Although there’s more to do before we are fully successful, the TAG event went just as planned and I couldn’t be prouder of the team.”
At Lockheed Martin Space’s facility near Denver, mission operations of the spacecraft, which include TAG collection event, were carried out. After its launch in September 2016 and operations around Bennu in December 2018, the flight team has been running the spacecraft.
This TAG Manoeuvre is the very first time that NASA has managed to gather material from an asteroid. OSIRIS-REx is NASA ‘s third robotic sample return mission and all three of those spacecrafts have been designed and operated by Lockheed Martin.
“Today’s TAG maneuver was historic,” said Lori Glaze, Planetary Science Division director at NASA Headquarters in Washington. “The fact that we safely and successfully touched the surface of Bennu, in addition to all the other milestones this mission has already achieved, is a testament to the living spirit of exploration that continues to uncover the secrets of the solar system.”
The team will store the TAGSAM head, with material inside, in a sample return capsule if the correct quantity of material has been obtained. In March 2021, the spacecraft will then leave Bennu and deliver the capsule and sample to Earth on September 24, 2023.
“Our first indication of whether we were successful in collecting a sample will come on October 21 when we downlink the back-away movie from the spacecraft,” Moreau said. “If TAG made a significant disturbance of the surface, we likely collected a lot of material.”
NASA Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt supports OSIRIS-REx with comprehensive mission management, systems engineering and security and project assurance. The principal investigator is Dante Lauretta of the University of Arizona, Tucson, and the University of Arizona also heads the research team and the research observation planning and data collection of the mission. The spacecraft was designed by Lockheed Martin Space in Denver and is currently providing operations for spacecraft.
“After over a decade of planning, the team is overjoyed at the success of today’s sampling attempt,” said Dante Lauretta, OSIRIS-REx principal investigator at the University of Arizona in Tucson. “Even though we have some work ahead of us to determine the outcome of the event – the successful contact, the TAGSAM gas firing, and back-away from Bennu are major accomplishments for the team. I look forward to analyzing the data to determine the mass of sample collected.”
In NASA’s New Frontiers Initiative, OSIRIS-REx is the third mission. In Huntsville, Alabama, NASA’s Marshall Space Flight Center oversees New Frontiers in Washington for the Sceince Mission Directorate of the agency.
“This was an incredible feat – and today we’ve advanced both science and engineering and our prospects for future missions to study these mysterious ancient storytellers of the solar system,” said Thomas Zurbuchen, associate administrator for NASA’s Science Mission Directorate at the agency’s headquarters in Washington. “A piece of primordial rock that has witnessed our solar system’s entire history may now be ready to come home for generations of scientific discovery, and we can’t wait to see what comes next.”
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