Our spaceship just grabbed a piece of asteroid.

Science News celebrates a long-shot success in space, as NASA’s OSIRIS-REx probe is steered close enough to the asteroid Bennu to grab a piece to take home:

“The spacecraft did everything it was supposed to do,” said mission principal investigator Dante Lauretta of the University of Arizona in Tucson on October 20 on a NASA TV webcast. “I can’t believe we actually pulled this off.”

Images beamed back to mission control two days later showed that OSIRIS-REx was maybe too successful: Its sample collector appeared so full of rocks and dust that it was overflowing.

OSIRIS-REx arrived at Bennu in December 2018, and spent almost two years making detailed maps of the 500-meter-wide asteroid’s surface features and composition. Observations from Earth suggested Bennu should be smooth and sandy, but when OSIRIS-REx arrived, it found a treacherous, rocky landscape.

As it hovered just above the surface, OSIRIS-REx reached out a robotic arm with an instrument called TAGSAM at the end, for Touch-And-Go Sample Acquisition Mechanism. The instrument tapped the asteroid lightly for six seconds, and released a burst of nitrogen gas to disturb the surface dust and pebbles. Once those small rocks were lofted, some hopefully were blown into the sample collector.

Because signals from Earth took 18½ minutes to reach Bennu, the spacecraft performed the sampling sequence autonomously. When the mission team got the signal that the spacecraft had finished its job and retreated to a safe distance from Bennu, team members pumped their arms in the air, cheered and sent each other socially distant high-fives and hugs.

If the team decides to go back for a second sample, the spacecraft won’t return to Nightingale crater, said project manager Rich Burns of NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Md., at the October 21 news conference. Any second attempt would touch down in a backup site called Osprey, and would happen in January.

Short video at the link.