NASA confirmed its OSIRIS-REx spacecraft has successfully touched down on Bennu—a carbonaceous asteroid located about 200 million miles from Earth.
The agency shared video of the spacecraft's touch-and-go operation, in which it briefly landed on the astroid to swipe rocks and dust that are billions of years old. NASA says those samples, which are expected to be delivered to Earth in 2023, will likely provide some valuable insights into the solar system's early days and the origins of life.
"One of the prime goals of the mission is to understand the origins of the solar system and life on Earth, and the role asteroids may have played in delivering life-forming compounds on Earth," Goddard research scientist Jamie Elsila said at press conference this week, as reported by CNN.
About three-fourths of the collected samples will be archived so that future scientists can study them with advanced technology.
"... This will allow people not yet born using techniques not yet invented to answer questions not yet asked," Elsila added. "But we're really looking forward to searching for these organic molecules, these building blocks, and determining their formation, evolution and distribution throughout the solar system. Then, we can figure out how life got started from those ingredients."
Although astronomers began working the mission in 2004, OSIRIS-REx did not launch until 2016. The spacecraft would spend the following 26 months traveling to Bennu, eventually reaching it in December 2018. It then spent two years orbiting and evaluating the astroid before attempting to touch down.
Mission leaders will have to wait about a week before they can determine how much material was collected within the 16-second TAG maneuver. If there is at least 60 grams, OSIRIS-REx will depart from Bennu in March 2021 and begin its journey back to Earth.