Staff at Lockheed Martin Space in Denver celebrate the touch-and-go of the OSIRIS-REx spacecraft on an asteroid. Credit: Lockheed Martin.

In a quest for rare-space minerals, and, for scientific purposes, NASA has added a new twist to exploration.

A NASA spacecraft has touched down on the rugged surface of the Bennu asteroid — dodging boulders the size of buildings — grabbing a sample of rocks dating back to the birth of the solar system, and then scooting away, Al Jazeera reported.

It was a first for the United States – only Japan has previously secured asteroid samples.

The so-called “Touch-And-Go” manoeuvre was managed by Lockheed Martin Space in Denver, Colorado, where at 6.12 pm (22:12 GMT) on Tuesday an announcer said: “Touchdown declared. Sampling is in progress,” and scientists erupted in celebration.

Seconds later, the Lockheed mission operator Estelle Church confirmed the spacecraft had eased away from the space rock after making contact, announcing: “Sample collection is complete and the back-away burn has executed.”

The historic mission was 12 years in the making and rested on a critical 16-second period where the minivan-sized OSIRIS-REx spacecraft extended its 11-foot (3.35-metre) robotic arm towards a flat patch of gravel near Bennu’s north pole and plucked the sample of rocks – NASA’s first handful of pristine asteroid rocks, Al Jazeera reported.

The probe will send back images of the sample collection on Wednesday and throughout the week so scientists can examine how much material was retrieved and determine whether the probe will need to make another collection attempt.

An artist’s rendering of the OSIRIS-REx spacecraft descending towards asteroid Bennu to collect a sample of the asteroid’s surface. Credit: NASA rendering.

Scientists want at least 2 ounces (60 grams) and, ideally, closer to 4 pounds (2 kilogrammes) of Bennu’s black, crumbly, carbon-rich material – thought to contain the building blocks of the solar system, Al Jazeera reported.

Metallic asteroids are primarily iron and nickel, but can contain rare metals like platinum, gold, iridium, palladium, osmium, ruthenium and rhodium at concentrations several times higher than what is found on Earth.

Bennu’s gravity was too low for OSIRIS-REx to land as the asteroid is just 510 metres across. The asteroid is located more than 200 million miles (321.9 million kms) from Earth.

NASA’s science mission chief, Thomas Zurbuchen, likened Bennu to the Rosetta Stone: “Something that’s out there and tells the history of our entire Earth, of the solar system, during the last billions of years.”

If a successful collection is confirmed, the spacecraft will begin its journey back towards Earth, arriving in 2023. It can make up to three touch-and-go maneuvers in case it comes up short.

“Everything went just exactly perfect,” Dante Lauretta, OSIRIS-REx principal investigator from the University of Arizona, Tucson, said on a NASA live feed from Lockheed’s mission support building.

“We have overcome the amazing challenges that this asteroid has thrown at us, and the spacecraft appears to have operated flawlessly.

“I can’t believe we actually pulled this off … the spacecraft did everything it was supposed to do.”

The robotic arm’s collection device, shaped like an oversized shower head, is designed to release pressurised gas to kick up debris.

The spacecraft launched in 2016 from Kennedy Space Center for the journey to Bennu. It has been in orbit around the asteroid for nearly two years preparing for the Touch and Go manoeuvre, Al Jazeera reported.

Bennu, which is more than 4.5 billion years old, was selected as a target because scientists believe it is a small fragment of what was once a much larger space rock that broke off during a collision between two asteroids early on in the history of the solar system.

“Asteroids are like time capsules floating in space that can provide a fossil record of the birth of our solar system,” Lori Glaze, NASA’s director of Planetary Science, told Al Jazeera. “They can provide valuable information about how planets, like our own, came to be.”

NASA’s first mission to touch an asteroid and collect a sample of pristine space dirt is now viewable in high-resolution images.

Atomic-level analysis of samples from Bennu could help scientists better understand what role asteroids played in bringing water to the Earth and seeding it with the prebiotic material that provided the building blocks for life.

Studying that material could also help scientists discover whether life exists elsewhere in the solar system, as well.

“If this kind of chemistry is happening in the early solar system, it probably happened in other solar systems as well,” Lauretta, OSIRIS-Rex’s principal investigator, told Al Jazeera in an interview.

“It helps us assess the likelihood of the origin of life occurring throughout the galaxy and, ultimately, throughout the universe.”

The crucial part of the mission was made possible in part by Canadian technology, specifically the Canadian Space Agency’s OSIRIS-REx Laser Altimeter (OLA), which mapped the surface of Bennu in 3D, CBC reported

“When we arrived (in 2018) we realized very, very quickly that there wasn’t a single area on the entire asteroid that was 50 metres across that had no obstacles,” said Tim Haltigin, senior mission scientist of Planetary Exploration at the Canadian Space Agency. 

“And I think that’s one of the reasons why the OLA instrument became even more crucial in terms of understanding the roughness, the topography, the slopes of the surfaces … to really be able to pick a site where we knew that we could get the spacecraft down safely to collect a sample.”

Japan expects samples from its second asteroid mission to land in the Australian desert in December.

— Sources: Al Jazeera, CBC News, The Indian Express, NASA, Wikipedia

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