FYI: NASA appears to have scooped dirt from an asteroid 200 million miles away and plans to bring it back home

Would be nice if civilization could hold out for 2023 to see its return

A NASA probe has just now collected material from the surface of asteroid Bennu, some 200 million miles (322 million km) from Earth.

Over the course of four hours, the agency's OSIRIS-REx spacecraft inched toward its target on Bennu – a 16-metre-wide crater named Nightingale – at a nail-biting pace of just 0.2 miles per hour. At 1512 PT (2212 UTC), NASA engineers whooped and cheered on a live-stream as ground control confirmed the probe had touched down and sampling was in progress. A minute later, the team were told OSIRIS-REx had completed its sample retrieval, and had backed away from the asteroid.

The material was gathered by firing nitrogen gas from a capsule at the surface, and collecting the dirt kicked up by the puff in a scoop.

“This was an incredible feat – and today we’ve advanced both science and engineering and our prospects for future missions to study these mysterious ancient storytellers of the solar system,” said Thomas Zurbuchen, associate administrator for NASA’s Science Mission Directorate at the agency’s headquarters in Washington.

“A piece of primordial rock that has witnessed our solar system’s entire history may now be ready to come home for generations of scientific discovery, and we can’t wait to see what comes next.”

The NASA team now has to assess how much of the asteroid was picked up, which will take a day or so. The OSIRIS-REx team will check images of the equipment, and perform a series of spins to find out how much extra mass the spacecraft has acquired. The passenger-bus-sized probe carries three nitrogen capsules, all designed to blow dust and small pebbles into the craft's collecting vessel, and can therefore make two more runs for cosmic dirt if necessary.

The OSIRIS-REx spacecraft blasted off from Earth in 2016, and has been circling Bennu after reaching the rock two years ago. After scoping out the perfect landing sites, the probe has now carried out its first touch-and-go operation having rehearsed the process several times over the past few months.


Space probe snapped this photo of its sampling equipment as it reached the asteroid ... Source: NASA

NASA/Goddard/University of Arizona image of Bennu from 24km

A 73bn-kg, skyscraper-size chocolate creme egg spinning fast enough to eventually explode – it's asteroid Bennu


To collect the material, it fired its thrusters and headed toward Nightingale near the asteroid’s north pole. Next, it carefully extended its 3.35-metre robotic arm, known as the Touch-and-Go Sample Acquisition Mechanism (TAGSAM) toward Bennu’s surface. The spacecraft focused its cameras downwards and reoriented itself before it descended.

As it slowly made its way down, it tucked away its solar panels to prevent any potential damage from grazing the walls of the asteroid. Finally, the spacecraft touched down in the crater, fired off one of its nitrogen gas canisters to blow up loose particles from the ground. These were then scooped up by its sampler head. And voila, the maneuver was over in a few seconds.

It was not an easy move to pull off, considering it had to briefly touch down within an area that’s about three-parking-spaces-wide. Bennu, which is about 262 metres (861ft) wide, is also littered with hefty boulders, one nicknamed Mount Doom, and landing on one of them would potentially damage the spacecraft.

Although OSIRIS-REx was seemingly successful in retrieving regolith from the asteroid, whether it has enough of the stuff remains to be seen. NASA wants at least 60g (2 oz) of asteroid dirt, ideally up to a kilogram, brought back to Earth so that there’s more than enough to go around for multiple teams of scientists to study back on our home world.

Luckily, that shouldn’t take too long. NASA is expected to share the images of the sample in a news conference on Wednesday.

Bennu was carefully selected for a sample return mission for its pristine material, believed to contain water and clays forged during the birth of the Solar System. The regolith will help scientists learn more about our planetary system formed more than 4.5 billion years ago, and possibly how asteroids like Bennu may have delivered the chemical compounds needed to support life on Earth.

If OSIRIS-REx, indeed, has captured a sufficient amount of regolith it’ll bottle up the sample in a capsule and head back to our planet, and re-enter our skies in September 2023. Then we can really take a look at what makes the Solar System tick. ®

Similar topics

Broader topics

Other stories you might like

  • VMware claims ‘bare-metal’ performance from virtualized Nvidia GPUs
    Is... is that why Broadcom wants to buy it?

    The future of high-performance computing will be virtualized, VMware's Uday Kurkure has told The Register.

    Kurkure, the lead engineer for VMware's performance engineering team, has spent the past five years working on ways to virtualize machine-learning workloads running on accelerators. Earlier this month his team reported "near or better than bare-metal performance" for Bidirectional Encoder Representations from Transformers (BERT) and Mask R-CNN — two popular machine-learning workloads — running on virtualized GPUs (vGPU) connected using Nvidia's NVLink interconnect.

    NVLink enables compute and memory resources to be shared across up to four GPUs over a high-bandwidth mesh fabric operating at 6.25GB/s per lane compared to PCIe 4.0's 2.5GB/s. The interconnect enabled Kurkure's team to pool 160GB of GPU memory from the Dell PowerEdge system's four 40GB Nvidia A100 SXM GPUs.

    Continue reading
  • Nvidia promises annual datacenter product updates across CPU, GPU, and DPU
    Arm one year, x86 the next, and always faster than a certain chip shop that still can't ship even one standalone GPU

    Computex Nvidia's push deeper into enterprise computing will see its practice of introducing a new GPU architecture every two years brought to its CPUs and data processing units (DPUs, aka SmartNICs).

    Speaking on the company's pre-recorded keynote released to coincide with the Computex exhibition in Taiwan this week, senior vice president for hardware engineering Brian Kelleher spoke of the company's "reputation for unmatched execution on silicon." That's language that needs to be considered in the context of Intel, an Nvidia rival, again delaying a planned entry to the discrete GPU market.

    "We will extend our execution excellence and give each of our chip architectures a two-year rhythm," Kelleher added.

    Continue reading
  • Now Amazon puts 'creepy' AI cameras in UK delivery vans
    Big Bezos is watching you

    Amazon is reportedly installing AI-powered cameras in delivery vans to keep tabs on its drivers in the UK.

    The technology was first deployed, with numerous errors that reportedly denied drivers' bonuses after malfunctions, in the US. Last year, the internet giant produced a corporate video detailing how the cameras monitor drivers' driving behavior for safety reasons. The same system is now apparently being rolled out to vehicles in the UK. 

    Multiple camera lenses are placed under the front mirror. One is directed at the person behind the wheel, one is facing the road, and two are located on either side to provide a wider view. The cameras are monitored by software built by Netradyne, a computer-vision startup focused on driver safety. This code uses machine-learning algorithms to figure out what's going on in and around the vehicle.

    Continue reading

Biting the hand that feeds IT © 1998–2022