NASA shows images of spacecraft touching down on asteroid

NASA has released the first images of its OSIRIS-REx spacecraft touching down on the Bennu asteroid, which is currently over 300 million kilometres away from Earth.

The OSIRIS-REx mission’s primary goal is to collect and return at least 60g of material from Bennu.

NASA has said it is confident it was able to successfully retrieve this sample during a touch-and-go (TAG) performed by the spacecraft on 20 October.

During the manoeuvre, the spacecraft extended a robotic arm with a sampling mechanism known as TAGSam.

According to images taken by the spacecraft’s SamCam and preliminary data, the mechanism successfully made contact with the asteroid’s surface for about six seconds.

The spacecraft then performed a burn-away to lift itself off the asteroid.

NASA has shared a GIF of 82 images taken by SamCam during the collection event, one of which can be seen below.


Bennu’s characteristics

The OSIRIS-REx was launched all the way back in September 2016 and travelled more than 1.9 billion kilometres before arriving at its target in December 2018.

It proceeded to orbit Bennu to take images and perform analysis of the asteroid’s make-up.

One of its tools – an infrared spectrometer – confirmed scientists’ suspicion that the asteroid possessed low thermal inertia.

This would suggest its surface was smooth and made up primarily of fine-grained materials like sand.

However, OSIRIS-REx’s highly sophisticated cameras and laser scanning tools revealed the asteroid’s landscape was scattered with rocks and boulders.

OSIRIS REx will now begin the return journey to earth, where scientists hope they will be able to perform a more in-depth analysis of its collected sample.

It is expected to arrive in September 2023, when it will dispense the capsule containing the sample.

This will then fall down to a specific location in the Utah desert in the US.

The NASA Goddard Space Flight Centre provided a highly-detailed visual tour of the Bennu asteroid in a recent video, as shown below.

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NASA shows images of spacecraft touching down on asteroid