A close-up view of the Nightingale sample collection site on asteroid Bennu with an overlaid graphic showing the relative size of NASA’s OSIRIS-REx spacecraft. The mound of boulders casting a shadow to the right rises 30 metres from the floor of the depression. Image: Goddard Space Flight Center, University of Arizona
Out of four finalists, NASA has chosen a promising site on the asteroid Bennu where the agency’s OSIRIS-REx spacecraft will attempt to snag rock and soil samples next summer. If all goes well, the samples will be returned to Earth in 2023.
The preferred site, known as Nightingale, provides the best balance between risk and scientific reward, researchers say, offering an opportunity to collect organic and water-bearing material from the early solar system.
But it will be a challenge for spacecraft navigators. A mound of boulders dubbed “Mount Doom” rises to one side of the sample site, an obstruction that OSIRIS-REx must avoid to execute a “touch-and-go” collection.
“It’s a substantial, building-size obstruction, and we’re trying to get into a crater that’s on the order of a few parking lot spaces wide,” said Dante Lauretta, the OSIRIS-REx principal investigator at the University of Arizona.
“So we are doing a ...