Technology News Update: We know it is possible to do it. Japan’s Hayabusa-2 spacecraft scooped up a bit of Ryugu asteroid triumphantly before heading home. NASA hopes that Osiris-Rex, their latest robot wonder built to land not on a planet or a moon, but on the Bennu asteroid, will soon have similar success. It will be difficult.
NASA is days away from selecting a sample site for the sample collection operation of its intrepid spacecraft, the agency announced on Wednesday. It was not an easy process. NASA narrowed the choices to four bird-themed locations in July: Nightingale, Kingfisher, Osprey, and Sandpiper.
Osiris-Rex has been performing reconnaissance flybys of the sites, snagging high-resolution images and giving its team plenty of food for thought.
Bennu is a much messier, rockier place than NASA expected. It’s littered with boulders, some of which are as big as buildings.
The agency had hoped to find a spacious sandy area free of obstacles. “In reality the potential sample sites are not large, clear areas, but rather small spaces surrounded by large boulders, so navigating the spacecraft in and out of the sites will require a bit more fine-tuning than originally planned,” said NASA in a release on Wednesday.
Osiris-Rex has a built-in safety system that will abort the sample collection run if the spacecraft detects a potential hazard. The trick will be navigating it down to Bennu’s surface in a spot that won’t trigger the system.
“If the spacecraft executes a wave-off while attempting to collect a sample, that simply means that both the team and the spacecraft have done their jobs to ensure the spacecraft can fly another day. The success of the mission is our first priority,” said deputy project manager Mike Moreau.
We’ll soon know which bird will come out on top. NASA will name a primary and a backup site. Sample collection is scheduled for mid-2020. If all goes well, Osiris-Rex will bring a bit of Bennu back to Earth in late 2023.