The interplanetary probe OSIRIS-REx on Wednesday evening successfully approached the surface of asteroid Bennu at the point where NASA experts plan to collect soil samples at the end of this summer. This was reported on the official website of the mission.
“The main goal of the Nightingale flyby was to obtain the high quality photographs needed to catalog all the craters, boulders and other obstacles that exist in this area of the asteroid. At the end of August, OSIRIS-REx will use this catalog to to autonomously navigate the Bennu surface and determine the position of the point where the soil will be taken, NASA said in a statement.
According to representatives of the agency, the probe will have three more such flights over the surface of the asteroid. One of them will take place in mid-February, and the other two will take place in March and May 2020. In the first case, he will receive photographs of the reserve landing zone, and two subsequent approaches, during which the device will fly at a distance of 250 meters from the surface of the asteroid, will help the mission's scientific team decide on the choice of the point where OSIRIS-REx will collect the first soil samples.
The OSIRIS-REx probe was successfully launched into orbit in September 2016 as part of a rendezvous and sampling mission from the surface of asteroid Bennu (1999 RQ36). In the recent past, it was considered one of the main cosmic threats to the existence of life on our planet. The probe reached the celestial body in early December 2018 and then transmitted the first photographs of the asteroid to Earth.
It turned out that in shape and color, Bennu is very similar to another celestial body, the asteroid Ryugu, which the Japanese Hayabusa-2 mission has been studying over the past one and a half years. Unlike the dry and waterless Ryugu, astronomers have found record amounts of water in Bennu's rocks, making it an even more interesting object in terms of how the solar system formed.
OSIRIS-REx is now finishing mapping Bennu's surface. After that, scientists will choose a place from where a sample of the substance weighing about 60 grams will be taken. NASA experts plan to do this approximately at the end of August 2020, if it does not interfere with the cobblestones that dot the surface of Bennu.
After sampling the soil, OSIRIS-REx should launch a capsule with the primary matter of the solar system towards the Earth. If all goes well, it will fall in the US state of Utah at the end of September 2023.