NASA collects sample of ancient asteroid for voyage back to Earth

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NASA’s OSIRIS-REx mission readies itself to touch the surface of asteroid Bennu. (Photo courtesy of NASA/Goddard/University of Arizona)

CAPE CANAVERAL, Fla. (NewsNation Now) — A U.S. spacecraft touched down onto an ancient asteroid roughly 200 million miles away on Tuesday, as part of a mission to collect a sample and bring it back to Earth to study.

NASA’s OSIRIS-REx spacecraft touched the surface of asteroid Bennu for an attempted sample collection at around 6 p.m. EDT.

At 6:18 p.m. EDT, NASA announced on Twitter that the sample collection was complete.

The mission first launched from Cape Canaveral Air Force Station in Florida in 2016, and the spacecraft reached Bennu in 2018.

The asteroid, which is about as tall as the Empire State Building, could potentially threaten Earth late in the next century, according to NASA. Though, scientists estimate that the chance of it impacting the planet during a close approach is around 1-in-2,700.

This undated image made available by NASA shows the asteroid Bennu from the OSIRIS-REx spacecraft. (NASA/Goddard/University of Arizona/CSA/York/MDA via AP)

NASA scientists also believe the over 4.5-billion-year-old asteroid could carry hints about the origins of life on Earth. It’s possible that Bennu could be made of material containing molecules that were present when life first formed on the planet.

“OSIRIS-Rex is now ready to take a sample of this ancient relic of our solar system and bring its stories and secrets home to Earth,” the space agency said in a statement.

The effort on Tuesday will be the United States’ first attempt at collecting asteroid samples for return to Earth, a feat accomplished only by Japan so far.

The spacecraft, which is roughly the size of a 15-passenger van, will attempt to bring back at least 2 ounces, or a handful’s worth, of Bennu. It can touch down no more than three times to grab enough rubble.

The mission was expected to be more hazardous than scientists originally thought after new imagery of the asteroid’s surface uncovered that it’s filled with massive boulders, rather than small rocks. The spacecraft was designed to navigate within an area of nearly 2,000 square yards, but now must maneuver within a constraint of less than 100 square yards.

Should the mission prove successful, the samples will return to Earth in 2023.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.

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