NASA spacecraft lands on surface of asteroid

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(CBS News) – A NASA spacecraft made an historic maneuver Tuesday by landing on the surface of an asteroid hurtling through space. Scientists have big hopes for the small spacecraft and what it could bring home.

It’s a mission more than a decade in the making, one that could help answer some of NASA’s biggest questions. “We want to learn about the history of the solar system as a whole,” says Dr. Thomas Zurbuchen, NASA’s associate administrator for the Science Mission Directorate.

A small spacecraft known as “OSIRIS-REx” (Origins, Spectral Interpretation, Resource Identification, Security-Regolith Explorer) made the slow but daring plunge to the surface of an asteroid called “Bennu.” The spacecraft has been orbiting Bennu for nearly two years, studying its surface from afar and waiting for the perfect window to land. Bennu is the smallest object ever to be orbited by a NASA spacecraft. Scientists tell us the ‘OSIRIS-REx’ spacecraft is about the size of a small van.

Once on the surface, in a mere 16 seconds, OSIRIS-REx will use a small robotic arm to collect samples of the asteroid, which will eventually return to Earth. “Within days we’ll know whether we were successful in getting that sample from that surface,” says Dr. Zurbuchen.

At an estimated 4.5 billion years old, scientists see Bennu as a window into the cosmic past. They believe it was once part of a much larger asteroid and samples from the surface could offer a glimpse of how our universe formed.

“Did these rocks, with these highly complex chemicals, actually seed our, kind of, system that now turned into the Earth full of life,” says Dr. Zurbuchen.

OSIRIS-REx will remain with the asteroid for several months, until Benne makes its closest pass to Earth in March. That’s when the spacecraft will launch a capsule of the asteroid’s samples back to Earth, with an expected arrival of September 2023.

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