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NASA asteroid-sampling spacecraft looks at 'the mess it made' on Bennu

Osiris-Rex enthusiastically snagged a bit of asteroid Bennu, and on Wednesday it flew in to examine the mark it left behind.

The moment Osiris-Rex touched Bennu's surface.
NASA/Goddard/University of Arizona

In October 2020, NASA's Osiris-Rex spacecraft took a bite out of asteroid Bennu. Before Osiris-Rex returns to Earth to deliver its bounty, it took a moment to revisit the scene of the heist. The spacecraft performed one final very close flyby of Bennu on Wednesday to discover what NASA called "the extent of the mess it made."   

NASA said Osiris-Rex successfully completed the flyover and spent nearly six hours imaging the asteroid. "It will take until at least April 13 for Osiris-Rex to downlink all of the data and new pictures of Bennu's surface recorded during the flyby," NASA said in a statement Wednesday.

Osiris-Rex was a little greedy during the sample capture operation, picking up an overflowing amount of gravel that had to be stowed sooner than expected. It left a mark on the asteroid.

"The Osiris-Rex team decided to add this last flyover after Bennu's surface was significantly disturbed by the sample collection event," NASA said. "During touchdown, the spacecraft's sampling head sunk 1.6 feet (48.8 centimeters) into the asteroid's surface and simultaneously fired a pressurized charge of nitrogen gas." The thrusters fired to back Osiris-Rex away also disturbed the surface.

The spacecraft edged in to a distance of a mere 2.1 miles (3.5 kilometers) away from the asteroid's surface, marking its closest approach since the sample collection took place.

Osiris-Rex will continue to hang around at Bennu until May 10, when it'll kick off a two-year return journey back to Earth. The bits of Bennu will be delivered to scientists by way of a Sample Return Capsule jettisoned by the spacecraft. 

In the meantime, NASA will get to compare the before and after images of the sample site to see just how big a tattoo Osiris-Rex left on Bennu.

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