NASA’s OSIRIS-REx spacecraft has reached a major landmark in its quest to collect samples from the asteroid Bennu after getting closer to the space rock than it has ever done, creating a spectacular video in the process. The spacecraft completed its ‘Matchpoint’ rehearsal, which saw it perform several manoeuvres before the ultimate grab in October.
The grab needs to be perfect, as not only is the asteroid travelling at 28 kilometres per second but the 492-metre wide space rock is also slowly rotating as zooms through the solar system.
This is why NASA has had to perform two rehearsals, with the first taking place in March, so, when the time comes, it can collect samples from the space rock without a hitch.
During the run which lasted for four hours, OSIRIS-Rex reached an altitude of approximately 131 ft (40 m) before backing away from the asteroid.
NASA said there were three parts to the test: The orbit departure burn, the “Checkpoint” burn and the Matchpoint burn.
Checkpoint is where the spacecrafts checks its position and velocity before adjusting its trajectory down toward the event’s third manoeuvre – Matchpoint.
NASA said: “Matchpoint is the moment when the spacecraft matches Bennu’s rotation in order to fly in tandem with the asteroid surface, directly above the sample site, before touching down on the targeted spot.”
What makes the grab even more tricky is that, as Bennu and OSIRIS-REx are 179 million miles (288 million km) from Earth, it takes approximately 16 minutes for the spacecraft to receive the radio signals used to command it.
This means ground control has to essentially perform its manoeuvres 16 minutes in advance.
Nonetheless, the rehearsal was a resounding success, and NASA is confident it will be able to collect samples from the asteroid on October 20, before the spacecraft sets off on its journey back to Earth, where it is expected to arrive in 2023.
OSIRIS-REx principal investigator Dante Lauretta of the University of Arizona, Tucson, said: “Many important systems were exercised during this rehearsal – from communications, spacecraft thrusters, and most importantly, the onboard Natural Feature Tracking guidance system and hazard map.
“Now that we’ve completed this milestone, we are confident in finalising the procedures for the TAG event.
“This rehearsal confirmed that the team and all of the spacecraft’s systems are ready to collect a sample in October.”
The first sample collection from the asteroid was scheduled to take place this month.
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However, in light of the coronavirus pandemic, NASA pushed back the mission until October – with the samples to be returned to Earth in 2023.
The mission will give vital information on how to deflect asteroids from their collision course with Earth, but NASA reiterates while there is a small chance Earth could be impacted, “over millions of years, of all of the planets, Bennu is most likely to hit Venus.”
By collecting samples, NASA hopes to unlock the secrets of the solar system, as Bennu is a remnant of our galactic neighbourhood’s formation some 4.6 billion years ago.
Bashar Rizk, instrument scientist for OSIRIS-REx said: “The story of this asteroid is the story of the solar system.
“When we understand Bennu, we will understand something fundamental about our solar system.”
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