Tuesday, NASA’s OSIRIS-REx mission It will make history as it attempts to return to Earth from an asteroid in 2023.
The spacecraft – which arrived at the Bennu asteroid in 2018 – operates a touch-and-go maneuver, also known as TAG. This crucial part of the mission was made possible by Canadian technology, specifically the Canadian Space Agency OSIRIS-REx Laser Altimeter (OLA), which mapped Bennu’s surface in 3D. The asteroid is about 332 million kilometers from Earth.
That mapping is very important. Scientists and engineers had speculated that the asteroid would be mostly smooth and dirty. But it is not so.
Tim Holtigin, a senior mission scientist at Planetary Exploration at the Canadian Space Agency, said: “When we arrived, we quickly realized that there was not a single area on the entire asteroid that was 50 meters away.
“So how do we choose a prototype site and we really need to rethink our plan to be able to deliver the spacecraft safely. And I think this is one reason why it has become so crucial in understanding the OLA instrument. We can really choose a site that we know can be downloaded. ”
Mike Dolly, OLA’s chief instrumentalist, said he was pleased with the detail and accuracy it could provide.
“When I think about what this device should do and how it works – we have a very sensitive bennu, a very boring bennu in mind,” said Dolly, a Lassonde professor at York University. School of Engineering in Toronto. “So when you look at the details that came out of this device, it’s unbelievable. It’s honestly alienating all of us.
“So, we’re very proud of that.”
See | Bennu’s rendered rotation film by the Canadian OLA instrument:
Dolly has been working on this device for 12 years, while Holtigin has been working on it for seven years. Both say it has become a part of their lives.
“It was a little bitter sweet,” Dolly said.
The great part about the sample-return mission is that, since Canada is a partner, it gets some material. This is a very exciting thing about Haltigin.
“It is owned by Canada, so we are able to make these models available for generations and generations of Canadian scientists,” he said. “So, we’re basically launching the next 50 to 100 years of innovation based on these models.”
Instead of landing on the surface of the asteroid, a maneuver is performed to collect the material.
“Due to low gravity, we can’t actually land on Bennu’s surface. So we kiss the surface with the slightest touch and go, measured in just seconds,” OSIRIS-REx mission operations program Bethbuck Lockheed Martin space manager said in a teleconference Monday.
Compressed nitrogen gas is sent to the surface, which is stirred by the cells, and then collected by a sample.
The collection will take place at 6:12 p.m., and will be broadcast live on NASA TV. Also available on CBC.ca at 5pm
The signal from the spacecraft takes about 18.2 minutes to arrive. However, NASA hopes to confirm that the maneuver took place on Tuesday, but it will not be known until Wednesday if the material was successfully collected.
The OSIRIS-REx spacecraft went through two maneuver rehearsals, one in April and the other in August, so NASA hopes it will be a success. However, it has two more possibilities to collect material if it is not successful.
This is not the first time material has been collected from an asteroid. The Japanese space agency, Jaxa, is currently returning the Hayabusa 2 spacecraft with a prototype from an asteroid called Ryugu.
Think of asteroids as time pellets
OSIRIS-REx was launched in 2016 and reached Bennu in December 2018. Since then, it has been in orbit around the asteroid.
Bennu is 492 meters in diameter and orbits the sun once every 1.2 years. It was not discovered until 1999 and was not given an official name – a Grade 3 student from North Carolina was selected – until 2012 (the name refers to an Egyptian mythical bird).
The asteroid is believed to be about 4.5 billion years old and even older than the solar system. And that’s crucial: astronomers hope Bennu can shed some light on how the solar system formed and how life eventually evolved on Earth.
“Collecting a sample from an asteroid is the equivalent of going back more than four billion years to understand what an early solar system was,” Holtigin said. “So, you can think of asteroids as preserved time capsules. Materials from the formation of the solar system.”
The chances of Bennu iding the land are also very slim. But fear not: According to NASA, there is only one chance of 2,700 happening between the years 2175 and 2199.
For now, scientists and engineers are on the edge of their seats, waiting for confirmation that the mission was a success. And the asteroid has some surprises.
“It’s very exciting for me, to be honest, we’m going to find something no one expected, and I’m not sure what it is,” Holtigin said. “But I knew we’d be shocked and amazed once I found it.”