NASA’s Osiris-Rex spacecraft will perform on Tuesday its special mission grabbing some rocks and dust from the surface of asteroid 101955 Bennu at around 3:12 p.m. PT. NASA will broadcast the maneuver live on NASA TV and the agency’s website starting at 2 p.m. PT Tuesday Oct. 20. A team of astronomers first proposed the idea of this mission to NASA in 2004. After more than a decade of development, the spacecraft launched from Cape Canaveral, Florida, on Sept. 8, 2016, atop an Atlas V rocket. The spacecraft spent the next 26 months cruising to Bennu, officially arriving on Dec. 3, 2018. The touch-and-go sampling procedure is a complex, high-stakes task that’s been building to a key climactic moment for years. After a slow approach, the actual sample collection procedure lasts less than 16 seconds. It’s still possible the surface will prove to be too rocky to get a good sample.
Osiris-Rex is equipped with three nitrogen canisters to fire and disrupt the surface. After collecting its sample, Osiris-Rex will continue to hang around above Bennu for the rest of 2020 before finally performing a departure maneuver next year and beginning a two-year journey back to Earth. The sample return capsule will land in the Utah desert and be recovered for study. Bennu was formed in the deep cosmic past when gravity slowly forced together remnants of an ancient collision. The asteroid has a chance of impacting Earth in the distant future.