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NASA grabs a chunk of asteroid — with help from students at MIT and Harvard

This mosaic image of asteroid Bennu is composed of 12 PolyCam images collected on Dec. 2 by the OSIRIS-REx spacecraft from a range of 15 miles. The image was obtained at a 50 degree phase angle between the spacecraft, asteroid, and the sun.NASA/Goddard/University of Arizona

A NASA spacecraft briefly touched the surface of an asteroid and scooped up a sample in a historic mission Tuesday evening, with contributions from students at MIT and Harvard.

The OSIRIS-REx spacecraft, launched in 2016, skimmed the asteroid Bennu for mere seconds at 6:12 p.m., NASA said. “Touchdown declared, sampling in progress,” a voice said over a livestream of the event carried by NASA.

Onboard features include REXIS, or Regolith X-Ray Imaging Spectrometer, which was made by students from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and Harvard, said OSIRIS-REx co-investigator Richard Binzel.

“We’re thrilled,” Binzel, a planetary sciences professor at MIT and instrument scientist for REXIS, said in a telephone interview after the spacecraft completed its scoop. “We pulled off a very risky maneuver and all indications are that it went perfectly.”


Now, the NASA team is waiting to see exactly what was retrieved from the asteroid. Scientists will complete an onboard measurement of the sample, which will take a few days, Binzel said.

Once the measurement for its mass is completed, the sample will be stowed into a capsule and return to Earth in 2023, he said.

“We’ll have to patient to see exactly what we got,” he said.

Binzel said the triumph was a team effort.

“We’re honored to do something that lifts our sights skyward in times that are a bit difficult on Earth,” he said.

While the spacecraft has been orbiting Bennu since December 2018 looking for the “most perfect spot” to touch down, REXIS has been looking at X-rays from the asteroid’s gravelly surface, Binzel said.

The energy from those X-rays can help show the atomic elements that form Bennu, he said.

Astronomers and scientists are looking at Bennu because they think it’s rich in carbon, Binzel said. It’s like “going back and seeing what the original ingredients for the recipe of life were,” he said.


As with recent missions, NASA invited universities and students to propose a type of instrument they would build for the spacecraft, Binzel said.

“And by golly, we were chosen,” he said.

About 100 students from MIT and Harvard have been involved in the project since 2011, ranging from undergrad to post-docs, Binzel said. The students built the shoebox-sized REXIS at MIT.

“It’s just an honor to work with these people at NASA,” he said.

While the mission isn’t the first of its kind, as the Japanese are set to complete a similar asteroid mission in December, Binzel said it’s an honor to be a part of the exploration.

“Curiosity is one of the most fundamental characteristics of humans and so we are extending our curiosity to the farthest reaches we can,” he said. “We as scientists feel the drive of curiosity and the thrill of exploration and it’s humbling and satisfying to think that we can share that sense of exploration with the world.”

Breanne Kovatch can be reached at breanne.kovatch@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter at @breannekovatch.