A NASA space explorer on Tuesday touched down on the surface of the asteroid Bennu to collect rock samples and return them to Earth for study in what would be the first such mission for the USA space agency.
"I can't believe we actually did", said chief scientist Dante Loretta of the University of Arizona.
"The spacecraft did everything it was supposed to do", he added, noting that the emotion of the success "is nearly hard to process..."
Not all samples will be analyzed immediately, like those brought back from the Moon by the Apollo astronauts, which NASA is still opening up 50 years later. However, organic material like the kind scientists hope to find in a sample from Bennu doesn't necessarily always come from biology. It is also expected to take about 10 days to know how much material was retrieved.
A diagram showing OSIRIS-REx's sampling maneuver.
At Bennu, the Osiris-Rex spacecraft took four and a half hours to make its way from its narrow orbit to the surface, following commands previously sent by ground controllers near Denver.
Osiris-Rex was meant to land on a level, even surface, yet Bennu is so rough the group found no reasonable space.
OSIRIS-REx will depart Bennu in 2021 and deliver the sample to Earth on September 24, 2023.
"We'll only be kissing the surface with a short touch-and-go, measured in just seconds", mission deputy scientist Heather Enos said.
The coronavirus pandemic has caused a delay of two months. As the rocket drew nearer and afterward went through two years circling and looking over Bennu, it turned out to be clear this small world is not the same as what researchers anticipated.
The plan called for Osiris-Rex to shoot out pressurized nitrogen gas to stir up the surface, then suck up any loose pebbles or dust. During the maneuver, the spacecraft and the asteroid will be approximately 207 million miles (334 million km) from Earth.
"The fact that we safely and successfully touched the surface of Bennu, in addition to all the other milestones this mission has already achieved, is a testament to the living spirit of exploration that continues to uncover the secrets of the solar system", said Lori Glaze, director of the Planetary Science Division at NASA headquarters in Washington.
Another benefit: Bennu has a slight chance of hitting the ground late in the next century, although not as a life terminator.
Scientists could also learn more about the types of resources that could be extracted from asteroids, as well as the best strategies for diverting potentially hazardous space rocks. By October 30, NASA will confirm that the spacecraft has collected enough samples, or if it is called Asprey at another landing site in January, an attempt needs to be made to collect samples. It could, for example, have landed on a patch of large rocks too big for its sample head to ingest.
"This will be another important day for us. But this is absolutely the major event of the mission right now", NASA scientist Lucy Lim said Tuesday.
Instead of the so-called "seven-minute horror" of trying to land on the Perseverance Rover on Tuesday next year, expect "4.5 hours of mild anxiety", according to Beth Buck, the mission's program manager at the OSIRIS-RX team.