NASA is making its final preparations for the first-of-its-kind landing on an asteroid, which is expected to last a mere 16 seconds in an attempt to gather dust and rock particles with the hope of returning them to Earth.
The 4,650-pound OSIRIS-REx spacecraft, described as the size of a van, is only intended to make contact with asteroid 101955 Bennu via a robotic arm to collect anywhere from 2 ounces to 4.4 pounds of rock and dust samples. NASA is scheduled to attempt the landing on Tuesday at 6:12 p.m. EDT, streaming it live on its website.
The ambitious project has been in development for 16 years since a team of astronomers proposed the idea. The OSIRIS-REx spacecraft launched from Cape Canaveral on Sept. 8, 2016, and took more than two years to arrive at 101955 Bennu, a diamond-shaped object with a mean diameter of about 1,600 feet, slightly bigger than the Empire State Building.
It has an orbit around the sun that stretches from just inside Earth’s orbit to just inside Mars’ orbit and takes about 436 days.
OSIRIS-REx has spent the last 22 months orbiting 101955 to find a suitable landing location, and, after identifying four, settled on “Nightingale” — which NASA has described as equivalent to the size of a couple of parking spaces.
Besides its relative miniscule size, 101955 Bennu — and Nightingale — was found to be covered by rocks and boulders and without sandy areas. The discovery has made its planned ”touch and go” mission considerably more challenging, since the spacecraft has a higher chance of collision and the device attached to the arm intended to retrieve the rocks and dust may not sit properly on the surface to collect the samples.
OSIRIS-REx will use nitrogen to stir the surface and collect the samples, and has three canisters of the gas for two more attempts if the first fails.
If all goes well, OSIRIS-REx is scheduled to return to Earth with its cosmic payload in September 2023.