NASA will practice grabbing asteroid sample in space next week

Next week, NASA says it will conduct its first practice attempt at grabbing a physical sample from a giant asteroid. The test run will involve the agency's OSIRIS-REx spacecraft, which has been orbiting the asteroid Bennu in anticipation of a touchdown event this summer during which time some material from the surface will be gathered. If everything goes according to plan, the sample will be returned to Earth.

The test run will take place on April 14, according to NASA, which says that its OSIRIS-REx team will conduct a 'Checkpoint' rehearsal that will move the spacecraft very close to Bennu's rocky surface. This will enable the team managing the mission to practice the steps that will lead to the actual sampling event scheduled for this upcoming August.

The actual touchdown event will involve three steps: orbit departure, Checkpoint maneuver, and then the Matchpoint maneuver that leads to the touchdown. The upcoming Checkpoint rehearsal will involve the first two of these three maneuvers, according to NASA, giving the team a chance to make sure that the spacecraft's Natural Feature Tracking (NFT) system is working properly and that the other systems work as anticipated.

The rehearsal will last four hours, and will include the spacecraft extending its robotic sampling arm, as well as rotating into the position it would need to take for the sampling event. The OSIRIS-REx's solar arrays will enter a Y-wing configuration and the spacecraft will lower to an altitude of 410ft.

Once the entire planned rehearsal is complete, the spacecraft will be moved back into its original orbiting position around the asteroid Bennu. Only a limited number of people will be present at the Lockheed Martin Space facility where the rehearsal will take place, according to NASA, with the rest of the team working remotely due to the COVID-19 quarantines.