Unprecedented new video shows NASA's Osiris-Rex spacecraft landing on an asteroid and sucking up dust

NASA/Goddard/University of Arizona
  • NASA’s Osiris-Rex spacecraft landed on an asteroid to suck up a sample of rock and dust on Tuesday.
  • New video footage shows the tricky operation, including the six seconds that it touched the asteroid’s surface and blew nitrogen gas to send up a flurry of alien rock.
  • Mission controllers must now determine if the spacecraft obtained enough sample to bring back to Earth.
  • Visit Business Insider’s homepage for more stories.

NASA landed a spacecraft on an asteroid 200 million miles away on Tuesday.

New footage shows its tricky six seconds of contact and the flurry of alien rock that the probe sent flying in order to suck up a sample.

The mission, called Osiris-Rex, aims to return a sample of the asteroid to Earth. But landing on the asteroid, called Bennu, was no small feat. The terrain turned out to be much rockier than researchers expected, with Bennu covered in large boulders and rock fields that could have easily tipped over a robot trying to land. The safest spot the spacecraft could find was still quite rugged.

But the Osiris-Rex probe seemed to complete its 4-hour descent according to plan.

“Transcendental. I can’t believe we actually pulled this off,” Dante Lauretta, the mission’s principal investigator, said during NASA’s live broadcast of the operation. “The spacecraft did everything it was supposed to do.”

With the spacecraft’s camera pointed toward its extended sample-collecting arm — and the asteroid surface beneath it — Osiris-Rex snapped photos throughout the operation. On Wednesday NASA released the resulting footage, which shows the critical stages of the touch-and-go operation.

In the video above, the spacecraft’s sample-collection arm lands in the asteroid’s surface rubble — a rocky field with a sandy dust called regolith. One second later, the arm shoots nitrogen gas at the ground, which stirs up the rubble for about five seconds, filling the surrounding space.

In that whirlwind, some of the material should have circulated through the pod at the end of the sample-collection arm. That’s the regolith that Osiris-Rex will hopefully return to Earth.

Asteroids are made of ancient rock from the beginnings of the solar system 4.5 billion years ago, and some scientists think they delivered key ingredients for life to Earth. So studying this primordial material could help scientists learn how life began.

Rock from this particular asteroid, called Bennu, could also help scientists design a plan to deflect it if its future path puts it at risk of an impact with Earth.

As it landed, Osiris-Rex appeared to crush a rock beneath it. That’s good news, according to Lauretta, since it makes it more likely the spacecraft collected a good sample. Crushed, powdery rock is more likely to swirl around and fill the sampling instrument.

“These rocks might be very weak compared to what we’re used to on Earth,” Lauretta said.

The rock Osiris-Rex collects may be very different from any alien rock samples we have here on Earth. Meteorites sometimes fall through Earth’s atmosphere and land on the ground, but they have to be durable to do that. However, many of our solar system’s asteroids may be composed of more fragile rock like that on Bennu.

After six seconds on Bennu’s surface, Osiris-Rex fired its thrusters and backed away from the asteroid.

NASA and its engineering partner, Lockheed Martin, will now work to determine whether the spacecraft sucked up enough regolith. In order to get the “OK” to return home, the probe needs at least 2.1 ounces (60 grams), which is about a small bag of potato chips’ worth of mass.

If it didn’t get enough, the spacecraft will try again, touching down at a backup site on another part of the asteroid in January.

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