NASA selects sample collection site on asteroid 'Bennu'

15 Décembre, 2019, 11:08 | Auteur: Therese Cote

The sampler head, with the regolith safely inside, is then sealed up in the spacecraft's Sample Return Capsule, which will be returned to Earth in late 2023. Once collected, the sample will consist of about 30 sugar packets worth of material.

Since arriving at the asteroid last December, NASA's OSIRIS-REx mission has been mapping its surface to determine the best spot to collect samples next year.

And analyses of Bennu's motion could help researchers better predict the trajectories of potentially unsafe asteroids - a category that includes Bennu, by the way. Collecting multiple ounces of material from an asteroid could be an incredible boon for scientists.

A close up image of a relatively boulder free crater known as "Nightingale" on the asteroid Bennu, where the OSIRIS-Rex mission will attempt to collect a sample next year.

"Of the four candidates, site Nightingale best meets these criteria and, ultimately, best ensures mission success", he continued.

This announcement follows a months-long selection process between four bird-named candidates: Sandpiper (specifically a western sandpiper), Osprey, Kingfisher (specifically a common kingfisher), and Nightingale, all of which seemed to be fairly hazard-free.

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Bennu, it turns out, is a very rocky asteroid and this is a problem for NASA. All four sites are diverse in their location and features. The crater, which is about 460 feet wide, has a relatively smooth surface and cool temperatures.

Soon, an image of the asteroid appeared on mission control screens: a diamond-shaped body with a rough, speckled exterior. Thus, the team selected Osprey as a back-up site for the sampling mission. That's one-tenth of the space they thought they had to work with to sample the asteroid's surface. As well, there's one large boulder (it's the size of a building) on the crater's rim where it may be a risk to the spacecraft.

The team members of the mission briefed the media houses about such development on Thursday. "The team has adapted by employing a more accurate, though more complex, optical navigation technique to be able to get into these small areas".

OSIRIS-REx was within 12 miles of Bennu's surface - about the distance between the White House and NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center, which manages the spacecraft. Once these flyovers are complete, the spacecraft will begin rehearsals for its first "touch-and-go" sample collection attempt, which is scheduled for August.

The mission - which stands for Origins, Spectral Interpretation, Resource Identification, Security-Regolith Explorer - launched in September 2016. Scientists are suspecting that the carbon-rich asteroids brought the source of life to the earth. A direct hit is unlikely, but the data gathered during this mission can help determine the best ways to deflect near-Earth asteroids.

Next year, OSIRIS-REx will drift down to Nightingale and make contact with the surface as it blasts out a jet of compressed nitrogen. The primary aim of the spacecraft was to gathering information about the initial days of the solar system. This knocked it through space until an orbit close to Earth locked it in place.

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