On Tuesday October 20, NASA's OSIRIS-REx mission will gather a sample from the surface of an asteroid - a first in U.S. space exploration history!
The OSIRIS-REx asteroid sample return mission is led by NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL); the spacecraft has been in proximity to the asteroid for quite some time, mapping the surface in great detail. Asteroid Bennu's unexpectedly rocky surface made selection of a safe sample location difficult, but eventually 4 candidates were selected and a final site chosen. The spacecraft has done two test-runs of its sample collection maneuver in August, getting to within 131 ft (40 m) of the asteroid's surface.
OSIRIS-REx has made several discoveries as it has surveyed the surface of asteroid Bennu - it saw particles being ejected from the asteroids surface.
We’ve also learned a lot about Bennu’s gravity field. Using the natural supply of mini gravity probes (ejected particles), the team discovered that the interior of Bennu is not uniform. pic.twitter.com/JUdGvf145p
— NASA's OSIRIS-REx (@OSIRISREx) October 10, 2020
OSIRIS-REx found carbon-bearing material and organic compounds on Bennu's surface!
It’s official. Carbon-bearing material (including organic compounds!) is widespread on Bennu’s surface and present at site Nightingale. So, I'll likely achieve a major mission goal: collecting carbonaceous material. pic.twitter.com/w24Rynj8lw
— NASA's OSIRIS-REx (@OSIRISREx) October 8, 2020
Pieces of asteroid Vesta, which suffered a massive impact in the distant past, may have been detected on the surface of Bennu!
University students and researchers noticed an x-ray outburst from a black hole while using instruments on OSIRIS-REx.
The sampling mechanism on OSIRIS-REx is designed to allow for three sample acquisition attempts; after a sample has been successfully collected, the spacecraft will return the sample to Earth, arriving in 2023.
OSIRIS-REx is one of several currently active sample return missions - JAXA's HAYABUSA2 spacecraft is currently returning to Earth with a sample from asteroid Ryugu.
On a personal note: I've been an asteroid fanatic since 2012, and I'm an ambassador for NASA's OSIRIS-REx mission - I am ridiculously excited about this sample acquisition! I wish the spacecraft had some onboard sample analysis capability - having to wait till 2023 may drive me crazy! But I know, I know... adding that would greatly increase the mission's complexity, launch weight, cost and pretty much everything else.