NASA Building New State-of-the-Art Labs to Study New Asteroid Samples, Cosmic Mysteries

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When it lands in the Australian desert, it will be the first subsurface asteroid sample to return to Earth.

Not all samples will be analyzed immediately, like those brought back from the Moon by the Apollo astronauts, which NASA is still opening up 50 years later.

The OSIRIS-REx team took it slow and steady, sending commands that took the spacecraft through a four-hour descent sequence.

Lori Glaze, NASA's Planetary Science Division director, called the maneuver "historic", and Osiris-REx's deputy project manager at NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center said it was "hard to put into words how exciting it was".

"If this kind of chemistry was happening in the early solar system, it could have happened in other solar systems as well", Loretta, OSIRIS-Rex's primary investigator, told Al Jazeera in an interview ahead of Tuesday's progress. "Before it arrives, we'll be preparing in many ways, such as holding sample return capsule retrieval and disassembly rehearsals to the make sure the actual event goes as smoothly as possible and the sample is protected".

The mission, if it goes successfully, will be the first USA mission to carry samples from an asteroid back to Earth and the largest sample returned from space since the Apollo era, according to the National Aeronautics and Space Administration. It extended the shoulder, then elbow, then wrist of its 11-foot (3.35-meter) sampling arm, known as the Touch-And-Go Sample Acquisition Mechanism (TAGSAM), and transited across Bennu while descending about a half-mile (805 meters) toward the surface.

The coronavirus pandemic has caused a delay of two months.

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OSIRIS took off from Cape Canaveral, Florida in September 2016.

The minivan-sized OSIRIS-REx spacecraft will send back images of the sample collected from the Bennu asteroid and, if a successful collection is confirmed, the spacecraft will journey back toward Earth, arriving in 2023.

. As the rocket drew nearer and afterward went through two years circling and looking over Bennu, it turned out to be clear this small world is not the same as what researchers anticipated.

Scientists want between 2 ounces (60 grams) and 4 pounds (2 kilograms) of the crumbly, carbon-rich black Benno believed to contain the building blocks of our solar system.

As the robotic arm made contact with the surface it fired a burst of nitrogen gas to stir up dust and pebbles, some of which will hopefully have been captured by the probe. Bennu itself has an ever-so-slight, 1-in-2,700 chance of colliding with Earth sometime between the year 2175 and 2199.

Thomas Zurbuchen, associate administrator for NASA's Science Mission Directorate, described Tuesday's touch-and-go mission as "an incredible feat", adding, "Today we've advanced both science and engineering and our prospects for future missions to study these mysterious ancient storytellers of the solar system".

"This will be another important day for us".

"Sample collection is complete, and the back-away burn has executed", mission operator Estelle Church said seconds later, confirming that the spacecraft had eased away from Bennu after making contact. Asteroids are remnants from that era, more than 4.5 billion years ago.

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