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How You Can Watch Live As NASA ‘Kisses’ An Asteroid That Could Destroy Earth In The 22nd Century

On Tuesday, October 20, 2020, NASA will conduct one of the most daring missions in its 62-year history when it attempts a risky “touch-and-go” maneuver to “kiss” a near-Earth asteroid for five seconds.

NASA’s OSIRIS-REx spacecraft will collect a sample of rocks, dust and debris from the asteroid called Bennu—currently 200 million miles away—and then fly it back to Earth. 

Why is NASA undertaking such a complicated engineering feat?

It’s thought that Bennu contains material from the early Solar System. It may even contain the molecular precursors to life and Earth’s oceans. So it could tell us how the Solar System was born and how life began. 

However, rather alarmingly, Bennu could strike Earth in the 22nd century. 

Here’s everything you need to know to follow NASA’s spacecraft as it “scrapes” some space dust from Bennu and sends it back to Earth.

When and where to follow the OSIRIS-REx sample collection

The OSIRIS-REx spacecraft will descend to the surface of Bennu and attempt to collect a sample at 6:12 p.m. EDT (22:12 UTC) on Tuesday, October 20, 2020.

Live coverage of the spacecraft’s descent to the asteroid’s surface for will begin at 5 p.m. EDT on NASA Television and the NASA website, where you can expect to see a live stream animation displaying the spacecraft’s progress in real time.

Afterwards NASA will release new images of Bennu from the up-close encounter. 

On the same channels on Monday, October 19, 2020 there will also be briefings about the OSIRIS-REx mission and the Bennu asteroid in advance of the touchdown.

The following day, those in the U.S. will be able to watch PBS’s science series NOVA will air “Touching The Asteroid,” a one-hour special that gives viewers an inside look and exclusive footage of the mission released by NASA that day. It will air at 9 pm ET/PT and will be available for streaming online and on the PBS video app. The program will also stream on NOVA’s YouTube channel.

“It’s incredible to realize that after decades of space exploration, beyond the Moon rocks brought back by the Apollo missions, humans haven’t retrieved even an ounce-worth of dust from the rest of the Solar System,” says NOVA Co-Executive Producer Julia Cort. “If OSIRIS-REx succeeds, it will bring back material that has been largely unchanged since our Solar System first formed over 4.5 billion years ago, providing scientists with an unprecedented window into our own origins.”

How daring is this, really?

The OSIRIS-REx team, operating the spacecraft remotely from Colorado, has three chances to extend its spacecraft’s arm, touch down for a mere five seconds, and collect material from the surface of Bennu. 

How much material will OSIRIS-REx return to Earth? 

Possibly 70 oz/2 kg. That’s thousands of times more material than has ever been brought back to Earth from an asteroid.

If successful it would make OSIRIS-REx the largest sample collection robotically in the history of space exploration. 

What and where is Bennu? 

Bennu is, at around 1,900 feet in diameter, an asteroid about as tall as the Empire State Building. First discovered in 1999, a day on Bennu lasts 4.3 hours and it takes 1.2 Earth-years to orbit the Sun. Its orbital path actually intercepts Earth’s, with some of the dust particles it occasionally ejects sometimes causing a very minor meteor shower in late September each year.

More importantly, its trajectory and its size make it a “potentially hazardous asteroid”—a potential planet-killer. Scientists have calculated that there’s a 1-in-2,700 chance it will strike Earth in the year 2170. 

It will also make a close pass of Earth—at just over the Earth-Moon distance—in 2060. 

Initially called 1999 rq36, the asteroid is now called 101955 Bennu—with Bennu being the name of an Egyptian mythological bird. 

Why is Bennu so interesting?

Like all asteroids, Bennu is the leftovers from the cloud of gas and dust that collapsed to form the Sun and the planets about 4.5 billion years ago.

Many asteroids have collided with each other since then, or undergone other changes in heat, but small, carbon-rich Bennu appears to be virtually unchanged. It may therefore contain the original building blocks of … everything.

What is OSIRIS-REx? 

Though rather clumsy-sounding as an acronym, OSIRIS-REx stands for Origins, Spectral Interpretation, Resource Identification, Security-Regolith Explorer. It launched on September 8, 2016. It reached Bennu in December 2018. 

Where on Bennu will the spacecraft land?

After mapping Bennu for a year while in orbit, OSIRIS-REx’s science team chose a site called “Nightingale” in the asteroid’s northern hemisphere. It’s in a crater about 460 feet/140 meters wide. Its thought to be a young crater where the soil has been recently exposed, which maximises the chance of obtaining a pristine sample of the asteroid. 

How will OSIRIS-REx get the sample?

During the maneuver, OSIRIS-REx will slowly descend to Bennu’s surface at a few centimeters per second before outstretching an arm to touch its surface.

There’s not much gravity on Bennu, so it will be more like a docking than a landing.

That arm will blow high-pressure nitrogen gas into the soil to cause a cloud of loose dust, dirt and rock fragments upward to be trapped inside a canister in the spacecraft. 

How will the sample be returned to Earth?

By parachute. After next week’s sample collection the spacecraft will travel back to Earth. It’s expected to arrive in late 2023. A sample return capsule will detach from it, enter the atmosphere, and land by parachute in Utah.

The canister of samples of Bennu will then be taken to Johnson Space Center in Houston for analysis. 

Have there been ‘sample return’ space missions before?

Yes—in fact, every Moon landing was, in effect, a sample return mission—though OSIRIS-REx will be the first U.S. spacecraft to return samples from an asteroid.

NASA’s Stardust Mission collected particle samples from the coma of comet 81P/Wild in 2004, returning them to Earth in 2006.

Japan’s space agency JAXA then conducted a sample return mission called Hayabusa to asteroid 25143 Itokawa in 2005, which arrived back on Earth in2010, while Hayabusa2 visited 162173 Ryugu in 2018 and the samples are due to land back on Earth in December 2020. 

However, if successful, OSIRIS-REx would go down in history as the most important sample return mission so far.

Wishing you clear skies and wide eyes.

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