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NASA Asteroid Team Picks Four Possible Sites For Sampling Mission

Since arriving at near-Earth asteroid Bennu in December 2018, NASA's OSIRIS-REx mission has been studying this small world of boulders, rocks, and loose rubble - and looking for a place to touch down. The goal of OSIRIS-REx is to collect a sample of Bennu in mid-2020, and return it to Earth in late 2023. Photo: NASA

NASA scientists have selected four possible locations to fly a spacecraft close to an asteroid and collect a sample of dirt from its surface.

NASA’s OSIRIS-REx spacecraft is currently orbiting the asteroid Bennu which is more than 100 million miles away. The plan is to fly the spacecraft close to the surface, suck up some dust and send it back to Earth.

The team has selected four possible selection sites and plans to pick the final area by the end of this year. The asteroid’s rocky surface was a surprise to the team and complicates the mission.

“The navigation team is actually refining and changing the way that they do the navigation into these areas because these areas are a lot more challenging than anticipated,” said UCF physicist and OSIRIS-REx co-investigator Humberto Campins.

Campins and his team have been mapping the asteroid since the spacecraft’s arrival late last year. The spacecraft is equipped with a robotic arm that will “tag” the surface of the asteroid and release a puff of gas onto the surface. A collection device will harvest the dirt and dust that is dislodged.

“This asteroid is a lot rockier than expected, so we’re being very conservative in terms of making sure as we go down we’re not going to be running into unexpected rough material.”

Once collected, the tiny canister filled with the sample will return to Earth. Scientists hope the sample will contain evidence uncovering how life began in our solar system.

The mission uncovered more unusual findings earlier this year when it captured images of Bennu spewing pebble and rock-sized debris. Despite the surprises, the mission isn’t expected to face any delays.

“We knew that Bennu would surprise us, so we came prepared for whatever we might find,” said Dante Lauretta, OSIRIS-REx principal investigator at the University of Arizona, Tucson. “As with any mission of exploration, dealing with the unknown requires flexibility, resources and ingenuity.”

The team is working with another asteroid team from Japan which successfully completed a return mission back in 2010.

OSIRIS-REx launched from Cape Canaveral  in 2016. It’s expect to return the sample to earth in four years.

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Brendan Byrne

About Brendan Byrne

Space Reporter and 'Are We There Yet?' Host

Brendan covers space news for WMFE, everything from rocket launches to the latest scientific discoveries in our universe. He hosts WMFE's weekly radio show and podcast "Are We There Yet?" which explores human space exploration. Brendan is a native Floridian, born and raised in Broward County. He moved to ... Read Full Bio »