NASA news: Space agency’s OSIRIS-REx readies for maiden Asteroid Bennu sample mission

US-based space agency NASA has now targeted the revised date of Tuesday, October 20 for its first asteroid surface-sampling attempt. NASA’s Origins, Spectral Interpretation, Resource Identification and Security – Regolith Explorer (OSIRIS-REx) mission was initially scheduled for August.

However, the manoeuvre was delayed due to complications caused by the coronavirus pandemic.

The OSIRIS-REx mission has been demonstrating the very essence of exploration by persevering through unexpected challenges

NASA’s Thomas Zurbuchen

Thomas Zurbuchen, NASA’s associate administrator for science, revealed his confidence OSIRUS-REx could overcome the latest hurdle.

He said in a statement: “The OSIRIS-REx mission has been demonstrating the very essence of exploration by persevering through unexpected challenges.

“That spirit has led them to the cusp of the prize we all are waiting for – securing a sample of an asteroid to bring home to Earth, and I’m very excited to follow them through the home stretch.”

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From discovering Bennu’s surprisingly rugged and active surface, to entering the closest-ever orbit around a planetary body, OSIRIS-REx has overcome numerous challenges since arriving at the asteroid in December 2018.

Last month, the spacecraft approached within 213ft (65m) from Asteroid Bennu’s surface during its first sample collection practice run.

This successfully completed a rehearsal of the activities preparing for the actual sampling event.

But although the mission is ready to collect a space rock sample, NASA had to react to an unanticipated challenge.

In response to coronavirus constraints, the OSIRIS-REx mission has given its team additional preparation time for both the final rehearsal and the sample collection event.

Intricate spacecraft activities require significant time for fine-tuning operations.

And given the current requirements limiting in-person participation, the mission has been provided with additional time to complete these preparations in the new environment.

Consequently, both the second rehearsal and the first sample collection attempt now have two extra months to prepare.

Rich Burns, OSIRIS-REx project manager at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center, said: “In planning the mission, we included robust schedule margin while at Bennu to provide the flexibility to address unexpected challenges.

“This flexibility has allowed us to adapt to the surprises that Bennu has thrown at us.

“It’s now time to prioritise the health and safety of both team members and the spacecraft.”

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The mission had originally planned to perform the first Touch-and-Go (TAG) sample collection event on August 25 after completing a second rehearsal in June.

This rehearsal is now rescheduled for August 11, which will bring the spacecraft through the first three manoeuvres of the sample collection sequence to an approximate altitude of 131ft (40m) over Asteroid Bennu’s surface.

The first sample collection attempt will see OSIRIS-REx descend to Bennu’s surface and collect material from sample site Nightingale.

Dante Lauretta, OSIRIS-REx principal investigator at the University of Arizona, said: “This mission’s incredible performance so far is a testament to the extraordinary skill and dedication of the OSIRIS-REx team.

“I am confident that even in the face of the current challenge, this team will be successful in collecting our sample from Bennu.”

During the TAG event, OSIRIS-REx’s sampling mechanism will touch Bennu’s surface for approximately five seconds, fire a charge of pressurised nitrogen to disturb the surface, and collect a sample before the spacecraft backs away.

The mission has resources onboard for three sample collection opportunities. If the spacecraft successfully collects a sufficient sample on October 20, no additional sampling attempts will be made.

The spacecraft is scheduled to depart Bennu in mid-2021 and will return the sample to Earth on September 24, 2023.

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