NASA on Wednesday released its first images of a sampling operation carried out on the asteroid Bennu, which appeared to show successful recovery of rock and dust, or as one official put it, “the kind of mess we were hoping for.”
The US agency’s robotic spacecraft Osiris-Rex briefly touched down on Bennu’s boulder-strewn surface on Tuesday in a precision operation 200 million miles (330 million kilometers) from Earth following a four-year journey.
Osiris-Rex is set to come home in September 2023, hopefully with the largest sample returned from space since the Apollo era, which will help unravel the origins of our solar system.
In the meantime, images taken on the probe’s approach provide a play-by-play of the mission’s most action-filled sequence, including when the spacecraft’s sampling arm breaks a large but apparently crumbly rock on contact.
That, mission head Dante Lauretta said, was a good thing, since it likely produced the kind of fragments more easily collected by the arm.
Next, a nitrogen blast created a cloud of dust and rock — again, good news for collection.
“Bottom line is, from analysis of the images that we’ve gotten down so far, is that the sampling event went really well, as good as we could have imagined it would,” Lauretta said.
“Particles are flying all over the place. We really did kind of make a mess on the surface of this asteroid, but it’s a good mess, it’s the kind of mess we were hoping for,” he said.
The odds that the probe collected usable material have gone “way, way up based on the analysis of these images,” Lauretta added.
A final verdict will be made in the next few days: First on the basis of sample images taken inside Osiris-Rex, then when the sample’s mass is measured on Saturday, with a final report expected Monday. The goal is at least 60 grams (two ounces).
Overall, the mission has already checked multiple boxes: the probe was not damaged on contact, the collection mechanism was triggered and Osiris-Rex was able to back away from Bennu’s surface safely.
“The Osiris-Rex mission outperformed in every way,” NASA chief Jim Bridenstine said.