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NASA's daring asteroid mission finally finds its grab-and-go spot on Bennu

With an assist from citizen scientists, the Osiris-Rex team picked the perfect sample-collection site on an asteroid strewn with giant boulders.

This shows how Osiris-Rex will aim for the sample-collection site in the Nightingale area of Bennu.
NASA/Goddard/University of Arizona

We know it can be done. Japan's Hayabusa-2 spacecraft triumphantly scooped up a bit of asteroid Ryugu before heading home. NASA hopes it will soon have similar success with Osiris-Rex, its latest robot wonder built to touch not a planet or a moon, but the asteroid Bennu. It's going to be challenging, but NASA now has a sample-collection site in sight.

NASA announced the winning spot on Thursday. It hasn't been an easy process. In July, NASA narrowed the options down to four sites with bird-themed names: Nightingale, Kingfisher, Osprey and Sandpiper. Nightingale is the chosen one.

These are the four potential sample sites on asteroid Bennu.

NASA/Goddard/University of Arizona

"We recognize that this has some hazards around it," principal investigator Dante Lauretta said of Nightingale during a NASA livestream. The team is willing to take the risk because of the scientific interest of this site, which gives Osiris-Rex the best chance of collecting "organic material and water-bearing material."

Bennu is a much messier, rockier place than NASA expected. The agency had hoped to find a spacious sandy area free of obstacles, but the asteroid is littered with boulders, some of which are as big as buildings. 

"I thought it was going to be a straightforward site selection, and it was nothing of the sort," said Lauretta. The agency called on citizen-scientists to help suss out potential landing sites earlier this year.

Osiris-Rex has a built-in safety system that will abort the sample collection run if the spacecraft detects a potential hazard. The trick will be navigating it down to Bennu's surface in a precise spot that won't trigger the system. 

"If the spacecraft executes a wave-off while attempting to collect a sample, that simply means that both the team and the spacecraft have done their jobs to ensure the spacecraft can fly another day. The success of the mission is our first priority," said deputy project manager Mike Moreau in a release on Dec. 4.

While NASA is most interested in Nightingale, it has also named Osprey as the backup site in case the primary area doesn't work out. Sample collection is scheduled for mid-2020. If all goes well, Osiris-Rex will bring a bit of Bennu back to Earth in late 2023. 

Originally published Dec. 4. 
Update, Dec. 12, 1:13 p.m. PT: Adds that NASA has announced the exact spot.