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NASA Spacecraft Touches Asteroid Bennu's Surface; To Collect Samples

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NASA's Osiris-Rex robotic spacecraft briefly touched down on near-Earth asteroid Bennu's surface on Tuesday to collect rock and dust samples that will be brought back to Earth in 2023.

Bennu is currently more than 200 million miles, or 321 million kilometres, from Earth. Osiris-Rex launched from Cape Canaveral Air Force Station in Florida in September 2016.

The spacecraft arrived at Bennu in early December 2018, and began orbiting the asteroid for the first time on December 31, 2018. The spacecraft is scheduled to return to Earth in September 2023. This is NASA's first mission to return a sample from an ancient asteroid.

According to NASA, the boulder-covered Bennu has been undisturbed for billions of years. Scientists have calculated it formed in the first 10 million years of our solar system's history, or 4.5 billion years ago. Scientists hope that the sample collected from Bennu will help unravel the origins of our solar system.

Tuesday's sample collection event by the van-sized spacecraft was conducted by a "Touch-And-Go" or TAG maneuver. The spacecraft performed an autonomous maneuver to collect the payload by briefly touching down its robotic arm in a landing site called "Nightingale".

The "Nightingale" site is the size of a small parking lot and is one of the few relatively clear spots on the boulder-covered asteroid.

According to NASA, Osiris-Rex engineers confirmed that shortly after the spacecraft made contact with the surface, it fired its thrusters and safely backed away from Bennu.

If Tuesday's sample collection event has provided enough of a sample, the mission teams will command the spacecraft to begin stowing the cargo to begin its journey back to Earth in March 2021. The scientists aim to collect a sample of at least 60 grams, which is roughly equivalent to a full-size candy bar, and possibly up to almost two kilograms.

According to NASA, all spacecraft telemetry data indicated the TAG event was conducted as expected. Nevertheless, it will take about a week for the Osiris-Rex team to confirm how much sample was collected by the spacecraft.

However, if the spacecraft did not collect enough sample at Nightingale, scientists plan to attempt another TAG maneuver on January 12, 2021.

Last year, Japan's Hayabusa2 probe collected some dust samples from another asteroid, Ryugu, and is currently returning to Earth.

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