A spacecraft from the U.S. space agency NASA briefly touched an asteroid Tuesday on a mission to collect dust and pebbles to bring back to Earth.
The OSIRIS-REx spacecraft - an acronym for Origins, Spectral Interpretation, Resource Identification, Security-Regolith Explorer - carried out the operation on the asteroid Bennu located about 321 million kilometers from Earth.
NASA said telemetry data from the spacecraft indicated the mission went as expected, but that scientists will need a week to confirm how much material the spacecraft was able to collect.
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If the amount is not enough, the spacecraft will carry out a second attempt at another location on Bennu in January.
Scientists are interested in Bennu because they believe it contains material from the early solar system and may contain the molecular precursors to life and Earth's oceans.
"A piece of primordial rock that has witnessed our solar system's entire history may now be ready to come home for generations of scientific discovery, and we can't wait to see what comes next," said Thomas Zurbuchen, associate administrator for NASA's Science Mission Directorate.
The asteroid is about as tall as the Empire State Building and could potentially threaten Earth late in the next century, with a 1‐in‐2,700 chance of affecting our planet during one of its close approaches.
The OSIRIS-REx spacecraft will orbit the asteroid until next year, when it will begin its journey home to Earth. It is expected to land with the sample in 2023.