Watching from Malaysia: NASA’s OSIRIS-REx Spacecraft First Attempt to Capture a Sample of Asteroid Bennu

“We just want to jump up and shake hands and hug right now!” exclaimed Michelle Thaller, an astrophysicist from NASA Goddard’s Spaceflight Centre. “But with COVID-19, we’ve got to stay apart and protect each other.”

Defining moment in NASA’s history:
OSIRIX-REx Spacecraft touchdown – first attempt to capture a sample of Asteroid Bennu, and bring it back to Earth by 2023

“Touchdown declared.”

Sampling is in progress.”

At 6.11am, Malaysia time, (6.11am EDT time), I jumped up from bed and opened Youtube on my phone – just seconds after OSIRIS-REx’s first sample collection attempt from the surface of Asteroid Bennu 200 miles away from Earth, known as Touch-And-Go on the agenda. 39,000 people were already watching the livestream. NASA’s TAG Team cheered after a successful historic first touchdown attempt to collect the largest asteroid sample since the Apollo era (that would be in the 1960s). The only extraterrestrial sample that could be larger than this would be samples collected from the Moon decades ago.

NASA TV’s simulation of the view of the sampling camera (SamCam) approaching Asteroid Bennu’s rocky terrain
So close! NASA’s OSIRIS-REx preparing for touchdown

The exact mass of sample collected, though, would have to be measured using a special method.

The reason why I’m so excited about this moment is because Asteroid Bennu is an ancient boulder-filled terrain, about only as tall as the Empire State Building, scattered with rocks and dust which may help trace back to the birth and origin of the solar system. Carbon-based compounds were found all over the surface of the asteroid, and these samples may just contain the ingredients for life.

I cheered, watching NASA in the US on the other side of the planet, who were themselves keeping an eye on the data sent back from OSIRIS-REx, 200 miles away from Earth.

Missed most of the action! But after scrolling through the live chats of thousands of people around the world congratulating NASA, and rewinding the live stream, I realized all of the images were only simulations. “We are collecting tons of images right now”, said James Tralie, social medialist and producer at NASA Goddard’s Spaceflight Centre, “but we simply don’t have the data rate to get the images back in real time. So they are getting backed in the spacecraft’s memory and we’ll start looking at those tonight, and we’ll have them available for everybody tomorrow morning.”

I can’t wait to see those images!

On social media: thousands of people around the world supporting NASA’s historic attempt !

This actually isn’t the first asteroid sample to be brought back to Earth. According to National Geographic, Hayabusa, a spacecraft developed by the Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency, returned with the world’s first asteroid sample in 2010, and Hayabusa2 will drop its cargo—a capsule filled with several grams of the asteroid Ryugu on December 6 this year. But these Japanese missions picked up only small amounts of fine-grained material. Asteroid Bennu is designed to pick up up to 2 kilograms of material, although the exact amount of mass collected is yet to be measured (in a day or two’s time).

“We backed away successfully from the asteroid surface – the team is exuberant back there. Emotions are high, everybody is really proud, and.. we have some work to do,” said Dante Lauretta, professor at the University of Arizona and Principal Investigator of the OSIRIS-REx mission. We don’t yet know how much sample we have collected. The next thing that we’re going to be looking for is, once the spacecraft has cooled off – probably got pretty warm as it approached the asteroid surface – once it’s stabilized, it’s going to point toward the Earth and start bringing that data back. Those SamCam images are going to tell us a lot of information about how the events of today went.”

OSIRIS-REx’s Touch-And-Go (TAG) first sample collection attempted completed flawlessly!

According to the National Geographic, who posted just moments after the livestream ended, the mission was first proposed in 2004, but was only competitively selected for the third mission in New Frontiers Program in May 2011. OSIRIS-REx’s original leader, University of Arizona planetary scientist Mike Drake, died only months later due to liver failure. Drake’s deputy, University of Arizona planetary scientist Dante Lauretta, took on the role left by his mentor. The OSIRIS-REx mission has since been carried out in Drake’s memory.

If you’re curious, click here to read about the Ten Extraordinary Things You Didn’t Know About Asteroid Bennu, a curation of all the various information I collected from various sources about this ancient asteroid dating back in time and history, simplified for easy understanding and extra-fun discovery. I will also be including in both this and that blogpost the links to the relevant sites!

James Tralie, producer at NASA Goddard’s Spaceflight Centre holding a mini model of Asteroid Bennu, inches before OSIRIS-REx’s touchdown.
NASA’s OSIRIS-REx Poll on Twitter: How much material do you think I’ll grab from asteroid Bennu today?
21 October 2020, 6.11 am Malaysia Time
Sampling process completed! The TAG Team cheers.

I’ve been so excited for the latest space updates lately, with three new crew members boarding the international space station just last week on October 14, Wednesday, 1.45am EDT time (1.45pm Malaysia time).

Unfortunately, I’m an aspiring doctor, far from being close to such opportunities, haha! If you want to become an astronaut, astrophysicist or be involved in space agencies, an engineering degree would increase your chances to fulfill such dreams.

For now, I am eagerly waiting for the photos to finally be delivered to Earth tomorrow morning, in Malaysia time (or tonight in EDT time), and for OSIRIS-REx to finally return to Earth by the estimated date of 23 September 2023 !

Asteroid Bennu’s a small and spunky one, both posing a threat to Earth while seemingly carrying evidences of dried up rivers or long gone life as well. A great big congratulations and salute to NASA’s TAG team, who worked so hard to overcome the numerous challenges posed by Bennu’s small size, and boulder-filled surface! We probably know Bennu up and down now, seeing the unprecendented amount of calculating, regular correction and up-to-2-centimeters detailed mapping required.


Brief self-intro: I am a Malaysian university student and aspiring doctor, and I post about anything and everything that interests and enriches me and my audience.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s