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NASA successfully tags asteroid Bennu: What you need to know about the mission – CNET

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Artist’s conception of NASA’s Osiris-Rex spacecraft and the asteroid Bennu.


NASA/Goddard/University of Arizona

Editors’ note: Osiris-Rex has touched down on Bennu. Our coverage of the event is here. Our answers to questions about the mission are below.

NASA’s Osiris-Rex spacecraft briefly touched down on a large asteroid Tuesday to snag some rocks and dust from its surface to be returned to Earth for study. On Wednesday, NASA revealed the first batch of images. The event marks a major first for NASA and a boon for science, space exploration and our understanding of the solar system. 

The touch-and-go, or TAG, sample collection of asteroid 101955 Bennu was deemed a success at around 3:12 p.m. PT. NASA broadcast the TAG maneuver live on NASA TV and the agency’s website. You can find a video at the end of this piece. For answer to your mission questions, read on. 

When did the mission begin?

Osiris-Rex as a concept has been in existence since at least 2004, when a team of astronomers first proposed the idea to NASA. After more than a decade of development, the spacecraft launched from Cape Canaveral, Florida, on Sept. 8, 2016, atop an Atlas V rocket from United Launch Alliance, a joint venture of Lockheed Martin and Boeing. The spacecraft spent the next 26 months cruising to Bennu, officially arriving on Dec. 3, 2018.

Since then, the mission team has spent nearly two years orbiting the diamond-shaped space rock, surveying and mapping its surface to select the best sampling spot. In recent months, rehearsals led up to the sample collection attempt. 


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Why Bennu?

Bennu is what’s called a “rubble pile” asteroid, meaning it was formed in the deep cosmic past when gravity slowly forced together remnants of an ancient collision. The result is a body shaped something like a spinning top with a diameter of around one-third of a mile (500 meters) and a surface strewn with large rocks and boulders. 

Bennu is thought to be a window into the solar system’s past: a pristine, carbon-rich body carrying the building blocks of planets and of life. Some of these resources, such as water and metals, could also be worth mining at some point in the future for use on Earth or in space exploration. 

The asteroid has one other characteristic that makes it particularly interesting to scientists, and humans in general. It has a chance of impacting Earth in the distant future. On NASA’s list of impact risks, Bennu is ranked No. 2. Current data shows dozens of potential impacts in the final quarter of the 22nd century, although all only have a minute chance of actually happening. 

How does TAG work?

For anyone who’s ever dabbled with robots or maybe even entered a robotics competition, the Osiris-Rex mission would seem to be the ultimate culmination of a young roboticist’s dreams. The touch-and-go sampling procedure is a complex, high-stakes task that’s been building to a key climactic moment for years. If it succeeds, it will play a role in history and our future in space. 

The basic plan was for Osiris-Rex to touch down on Bennu at a rocky landing site dubbed Nightingale. The van-size spacecraft would need to negotiate building-size boulders around the landing area to touch down on a relatively clear space that’s only as large as a few parking spaces. However, a robotic sampling arm was the only part of Osiris-Rex to actually set down on the surface. One of three pressurized nitrogen canisters was fired to stir up a sample of dust and small rocks that could then be caught in the arm’s collector head for safe keeping and return to Earth. 

The descent to the surface of Bennu took roughly four hours, about the time it takes the asteroid to make one full revolution. After this slow approach, the actual TAG sample collection procedure remarkably lasted only a few seconds. 

Preparing for TAG did not go exactly as planned. Mission organizers initially hoped the surface of Bennu would have plenty of potential landing spots covered primarily with fine materials comparable to sand or gravel. It turns out the surface of Bennu is extremely rugged with no real welcoming landing spots. 

After spending much of the last two years reevaluating the mission, the team decided to try “threading the needle” through the boulder-filled landscape at Nightingale.

It’s all paid off, so far. Osiris-Rex was able to touch down, but we won’t know for sure if it collected a sample until later in October. Fortunately, if the tag was unsuccessful, the spacecraft can try again. It’s equipped with three nitrogen canisters to fire and disrupt the surface, which means the team gets up to three tries at nabbing a sample. 

Then what?

Immediately after collecting its sample, Osiris-Rex fired its thrusters to back away from Bennu. The spacecraft will continue to hang around above Bennu for the rest of 2020 before finally performing a departure maneuver next year and beginning a two-year journey back to Earth. 

On Sept. 24, 2023, Osiris-Rex is scheduled to jettison its sample return capsule, which will land in the Utah desert and be recovered for study. 

Hasn’t this been done before?

Yes. Japan’s Hayabusa spacecraft successfully returned tiny grains of the asteroid 25143 Itokawa to Earth in 2010. Its successor, Hayabusa-2, fired a special copper bullet at the large asteroid Ryugu in 2019 and then retrieved some of the shrapnel. That sample is on its way back to Earth.  

How can I watch? 

The CNET Highlights channel covered the event live. You can rewatch the stream below:

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China launches mission to bring back material from moon – World News – Castanet.net

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China launched an ambitious mission on Tuesday to bring back rocks and debris from the moon’s surface for the first time in more than 40 years — an undertaking that could boost human understanding of the moon and of the solar system more generally.

Chang’e 5 — named for the Chinese moon goddess — is the country’s boldest lunar mission yet. If successful, it would be a major advance for China’s space program, and some experts say it could pave the way for bringing samples back from Mars or even a crewed lunar mission.

The four modules of the Chang’e 5 spacecraft blasted off at just after 4:30 a.m. Tuesday atop a massive Long March-5Y rocket from the Wenchang launch centre along the coast of the southern island province of Hainan.

Minutes after liftoff, the spacecraft separated from the rocket’s first and second stages and slipped into Earth-moon transfer orbit. About an hour later, Chang’e 5 opened its solar panels to provide its independent power source.

Spacecraft typically take three days to reach the moon.

The launch was carried live by national broadcaster CCTV which then switched to computer animation to show its progress into outer space.

The mission’s key task is to drill 2 metres beneath the moon’s surface and scoop up about 2 kilograms of rocks and other debris to be brought back to Earth, according to NASA. That would offer the first opportunity for scientists to study newly obtained lunar material since the American and Russian missions of the 1960s and 1970s.

The Chang’e 5 lander’s time on the moon is scheduled to be short and sweet. It can only stay one lunar daytime, or about 14 Earth days, because it lacks the radioisotope heating units to withstand the moon’s freezing nights.

The lander will dig for materials with its drill and robotic arm and transfer them to what’s called an ascender, which will lift off from the moon and dock with the service capsule. The materials will then be moved to the return capsule to be hauled back to Earth.

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China blasts off on mission to collect moon rocks – CBC.ca

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China launched an ambitious mission on Tuesday to bring back rocks and debris from the moon’s surface for the first time in more than 40 years — an undertaking that could boost human understanding of the moon and of the solar system more generally.

Chang’e 5 — named for the Chinese moon goddess — is the country’s boldest lunar mission yet. If successful, it would be a major advance for China’s space program, and some experts say it could pave the way for bringing samples back from Mars or even a crewed lunar mission.

The four modules of the Chang’e 5 spacecraft blasted off at just after 4:30 a.m. Tuesday (3:30 p.m. ET Monday) atop a massive Long March-5Y rocket from the Wenchang launch centre along the coast of the southern island province of Hainan.

Minutes after liftoff, the spacecraft separated from the rocket’s first and second stages and slipped into Earth-moon transfer orbit. About an hour later, Chang’e 5 opened its solar panels to provide its independent power source.

Spacecraft typically take three days to reach the moon.

The launch was carried live by national broadcaster CCTV which then switched to computer animation to show its progress into outer space.

The mission’s key task is to drill 2 metres beneath the moon’s surface and scoop up about 2 kilograms of rocks and other debris to be brought back to Earth, according to NASA. That would offer the first opportunity for scientists to study newly obtained lunar material since the American and Russian missions of the 1960s and 1970s.

The Chang’e 5 lander’s time on the moon is scheduled to be short and sweet. It can only stay one lunar daytime, or about 14 Earth days, because it lacks the radioisotope heating units to withstand the moon’s freezing nights.

The lander will dig for materials with its drill and robotic arm and transfer them to what’s called an ascender, which will lift off from the moon and dock with the service capsule. The materials will then be moved to the return capsule to be hauled back to Earth.

Technically complex

The technical complexity of Chang’e 5, with its four components, makes it “remarkable in many ways,” said Joan Johnson-Freese, a space expert at the U.S. Naval War College.

“China is showing itself capable of developing and successfully carrying out sustained high-tech programs, important for regional influence and potentially global partnerships,” she said.

In particular, the ability to collect samples from space is growing in value, said Jonathan McDowell, an astronomer at the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics. Other countries planning to retrieve material from asteroids or even Mars may look to China’s experience, he said.

While the mission is “indeed challenging,” McDowell said China has already landed twice on the moon with its Chang’e 3 and Chang’e 4 missions, and showed with a 2014 Chang’e 5 test mission that it can navigate back to Earth, re-enter and land a capsule. All that’s left is to show it can collect samples and take off again from the moon.

“As a result of this, I’m pretty optimistic that China can pull this off,” he said.

The mission is among China’s boldest since it first put a man in space in 2003, becoming only the third nation to do so after the U.S. and Russia.

Chang’e 5 and future lunar missions aim to “provide better technical support for future scientific and exploration activities,” Pei Zhaoyu, mission spokesperson and deputy director of the Chinese National Space Administration’s Lunar Exploration and Space Engineering Center told reporters at a Monday briefing.

“Scientific needs and technical and economic conditions” would determine whether China decides to send a crewed mission to the moon, said Pei, whose comments were embargoed until after the launch. “I think future exploration activities on the moon are most likely to be carried out in a human-machine combination.”

While many of China’s crewed spaceflight achievements, including building an experimental space station and conducting a spacewalk, reproduce those of other countries from years past, the CNSA is now moving into new territory.

New territory in space exploration

Chang’e 4 — which made the first soft landing on the moon’s relatively unexplored far side almost two years ago — is currently collecting full measurements of radiation exposure from the lunar surface, information vital for any country that plans to send astronauts to the moon.

China in July became one of three countries to have launched a mission to Mars, in China’s case an orbiter and a rover that will search for signs of water on the Red Planet. The CNSA says the spacecraft Tianwen 1 is on course to arrive at Mars around February.

China has increasingly engaged with foreign countries on missions, and the European Space Agency will be providing important ground station information for Chang’e 5.

China’s trip to the moon and, presumably, back is the latest milestone in the Asian powerhouse’s slow but steady ascent to the stars. (Mark Schiefelbein/Associated Press)

U.S. law, however, still prevents most collaborations with NASA, excluding China from partnering with the International Space Station. That has prompted China to start work on its own space station and launch its own programs that have put it in a steady competition with Japan and India, among Asian nations seeking to notch new achievements in space.

China’s space program has progressed cautiously, with relatively few setbacks in recent years. The rocket being used for the current launch failed on a previous launch attempt, but has since performed without a glitch, including launching Chang’e 4.

“China works very incrementally, developing building blocks for long-term use for a variety of missions,” Freese-Johnson said. China’s one-party authoritarian system also allows for “prolonged political will that is often difficult in democracies,” she said.

While the U.S. has followed China’s successes closely, it’s unlikely to expand cooperation with China in space amid political suspicions, a sharpening military rivalry and accusations of Chinese theft of technology, experts say.

“A change in U.S. policy regarding space cooperation is unlikely to get much government attention in the near future,” Johnson-Freese said.

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Lunar mission is latest milestone in China's space ambitions – CTV News

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WENCHANG, CHINA —
China’s latest trip to the moon is another milestone in the Asian powerhouse’s slow but steady ascent to the stars.

China became the third country to put a person into orbit 17 years ago and the first to land on the far side of the moon in 2019. Future ambitions include a permanent space station and putting people back on the moon more than 50 years after the U.S. did.

But even before the latest lunar mission lifted off before dawn Tuesday, a top program official maintained that China isn’t competing with anyone.

“China will set its development goals in the space industry based on its own considerations of science and engineering technology,” Pei Zhaoyu, deputy director of the Lunar Exploration and Space Engineering Center at the China National Space Administration, told reporters hours before the Chang’e 5 mission was launched.

“We do not place rivals (before us) when setting those goals,” Pei said.

Whether that is true or not is debatable. China has a national plan aimed at joining the United States, Europe and Japan in the top ranks of technology producers, and the space program has been a major component of that. It also is a source of national pride to lift the reputation of the ruling Communist Party.

What’s clear is that China’s cautious, incremental approach has racked up success after success since it first put a person in space in 2003, joining the former Soviet Union and the United States. That has been followed by more crewed missions, the launch of a space lab, the placing of a rover on the moon’s relatively unexplored far side and, this year, an operation to land on Mars.

The Chang’e 5 mission, if successful, would be the first time moon rocks and debris are brought to Earth since a 1976 Soviet mission. The four modules of the spacecraft blasted off atop a massive Long March-5Y rocket from the Wenchang launch centre on Hainan island.

The mission’s main task is to drill 2 metres (about 7 feet) into the moon’s surface and scoop up about 2 kilograms (4.4 pounds) of rocks and other debris. The lander will deposit them in an ascender. A return capsule will deliver them back to Earth, landing on the grasslands of the Inner Mongolia region in mid-December.

“Pulling off the Chang’e 5 mission would be an impressive feat for any nation,” said Florida-based expert Stephen Clark of the publication Spaceflight Now.

China prides itself on arriving at this point largely through its own efforts, although Russia helped early on with astronaut training and China’s crewed Shenzhou space capsule is based on Russia’s Soyuz.

While there has been collaboration with some other nations, notably those belonging to the European Space Agency, which has provided tracking support for Chinese missions, the United States isn’t one of them.

U.S. law requires Congressional approval for co-operation between NASA and China’s military-linked program. Ongoing political and economic disputes, notably accusations that China steals or compels the transfer of sensitive trade secrets, appear to dim the prospects for closer ties.

China’s space program has at times been seen as recreating achievements attained years ago by others, primarily the U.S. and the former Soviet Union. Even China’s permanent space station, now under construction, is partly a response to its exclusion from the International Space Station, mainly at the insistence of the U.S.

Other countries are also forging ahead, underscored by the dramatic landing of America’s Curiosity Mars rover in 2012 and the return to Earth next month of Japan’s explorer Hayabusa2 with samples collected from the asteroid Ryugu.

Still, China can boast an “increasingly sophisticated and demonstrated space expertise,” said Henry Hertzfeld, director of the Space Policy Institute at George Washington University’s Elliot School of International Affairs.

Lunar exploration remains a priority for China, something that in the future will likely take the form of “a human-machine combination,” Pei told reporters.

No target date for a crewed moon mission has been announced, but Pei said a goal down the line is to build an international lunar research station that can provide long-term support for scientific exploration activities on the lunar surface.

“We will determine when to implement a manned lunar landing based on scientific needs and technical and economic conditions,” he said.

——

AP researcher Liu Zheng in Beijing contributed to this report.

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