The US’ National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) is on the verge of pulling off its first attempt at landing a spacecraft on an asteroid with a highly-anticipated October touchdown on asteroid Bennu.
The spacecraft in question is the OSIRIS-REx probe, which was launched into the cosmos in September 2016 and placed on a trajectory that allowed the craft to reach near-Earth asteroid Bennu in 2018.
NASA noted in a Thursday news release that the Touch-And-Go (TAG) sampling event would see the probe land on the Nightingale site, a rocky area in the asteroid’s northern hemisphere that measures 52 feet in diameter.
“Site Nightingale was selected as the mission’s primary sample site because it holds the greatest amount of unobstructed fine-grained material, but the region is surrounded by building-sized boulders,” reads the NASA release, noting that the probe will be landing in an area roughly the size of just a few parking spaces.
The release indicates that OSIRIS-REx will be able to collect the samples by firing off one of the probe’s pressurized nitrogen bottles, which will allow the emitted gas to lift the desired particles from Bennu’s surface into the probe’s “collector head” before liftoff.
In all, the probe is intended to collect at least 2 ounces of materials, the largest sample of any mission since the Apollo program, according to NASA.
In the four days after the trip to Bennu’s surface, one of the camera’s installed on OSIRIS-REx will snap pictures of the samples, and the craft will also conduct a spin maneuver to determine the collection’s mass. Should the samples not meet NASA’s requirements, OSIRIS-REx will be ordered to collect more material from the asteroid.
NASA stated in its release the probe is fitted with two additional nitrogen bottles in the event that additional samplings need to be carried out. “A TAG attempt at the back-up Osprey site would be made no earlier than January 2021,” the agency wrote.
OSIRIX-REx is scheduled to part ways with Bennu in 2021. The probe’s return to Earth with the rock and dust samples is expected to take place on September 24, 2023, should all things go according to plan.