Retrieving a sample from an asteroid and bringing back to Earth has never been done. NASA has teamed up with the aerospace company Lockheed Martin and the University of Arizona to do exactly that.
The Lockheed Martin-build spacecraft, OSIRIS-REx, launched from Cape Canaveral, Florida in 2016. From there, it took a few years of travel to finally arrive at its target destination, the asteroid Bennu, in December 2018. Bennu is about the side of the empire state building, which actually makes it the smallest object ever orbited by a spacecraft.
Since then, OSIRIS-REx has been doing some prep work by mapping out the asteroid and picking out the best spots to collect a sample. Just last week, OSIRIS-REx reached a milestone, the matchpoint rehearsal. Lockheed Martin mission systems engineer Brennen Miller explains.
"And essentially what those are are practice runs of us going down to the surface and collecting material from Bennu."
But they don't go all the way down yet. They stop about 30 meters from the surface before propelling back into orbit.
"And the purpose of that is to basically make sure all of our systems are working properly," Miller explained, "and that went flawlessly. Everything worked as planned. And that's great news because that means we can stay on schedule."
Because everything went well, the plan is to actually take the sample from Bennu in just a couple months from now, on October 20th, 2020.
"We're going to go all the way down to the surface," said Miller. "We have a robotic arm that will come out that has somewhat essentially what is a vacuum cleaner on the top of it. It will suck up some material from the surface of Bennu and then the pogo mechanism within the arm will bounce us away."
Then, the sample will be put away into the sample return capsule, and the spacecraft will make the long journey back to earth. Upon arriving in 2023, the capsule will be released from the spacecraft, and it will descend into the Utah desert, where it will be retrieved and brought back here to Texas, to the Johnson Space Center.
"The samples we get back from Bennu will be the first time America has returned samples from an asteroid," said Miller, "and it will provide us with such great insight and so many technologies. So many things are learned from space that we can't replicate on earth."
Only time will tell what information we'll uncover and what breakthroughs will be made because of this little sample from Bennu.