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NASA to Collect Samples from Asteroid for First Time Ever

On Tuesday, October 20, NASA will attempt to collect materials from an asteroid for the first time ever. The space agency aims to collect the rocky materials from asteroid, Bennu, using its OSIRIS-REx spacecraft. (For some reason, NASA has not employed an underdog oil-rig crew for the mission.) If the collection proves to be successful, OSIRIS-REx will continue on with the next phase of its mission: heading home.

In its latest “Mission Check In,” which comes via Singularity Hub, NASA said that it’s all systems go for the October 20 attempt. At that point, the operators in charge of OSIRIS-REx will lower the spacecraft to within 11 feet of Bennu’s surface. Eleven feet is the magical number because that’s the length of Bennu’s TAGSAM. That is, its Touch-And-Go Sample Acquisition Mechanism.

To collect the sample, OSIRIS-REx will lower its TAGSAM, which is an arm with a collection chamber on its end. The spacecraft will try to collect samples from a relatively safe surface zone, the Nightingale site.

“The OSIRIS-REx spacecraft will make its first TAG attempt at gathering at least 2 ounces [of] regolith from the asteroid Bennu,” Roger Harris said in NASA’s check-in. Project Manager Harris added that the spacecraft will pull back its solar panels in order to avoid collisions. (Apparently, there are some “massive mission-ending boulders” around the Nightingale site.)

Scientists have developed an impressive way to make sure the spacecraft has indeed collected something. For this, operators have spun OSIRIS-REx around with an empty collection chamber, and then will do so again after its attempt. OSIRIS-Rex’s team can then determine, based on the difference in inertia, how much regolith the spacecraft has collected.

NASA is going to attempt regolith from the surface of an asteroid for the first time ever.

Kevin Gill

“If all goes well, TAGSAM will stow the… material and begin the trip home,” Harris added in NASA’s update. And, if all goes according to plan, that will be just a few years before another spacecraft heads toward Mars. One looking to collect regolith from the Red Planet so we can analyze it here on Earth as well.

Feature image: Kevin Gill