NASA on Tuesday hopes to collect a handful of rubble from an asteroid’s surface for the first time in America's history of space exploration.
According to the Associated Press, the Osiris-Rex spacecraft dropped out of orbit around asteroid Bennu Tuesday, beginning a four-and-a-half hour plunge to the surface of the space rock.
While Bennu’s gravity was too low for the spacecraft to land, NASA hopes that the Osiris-Rex will be able to reach out its 11-foot arm to grab at least two ounces of the asteroid’s surface.
“We’ll only be kissing the surface with a short touch-and-go measured in just seconds,” the University of Arizona’s Heather Enos, the deputy scientist for the mission, said, according to the AP.
While the mission marks the first attempt by the U.S. to gather samples from an asteroid, Japan has already completed the feat twice.
The trip to Bennu is the main component of the Osiris-Rex spacecraft mission, which first launched from Cape Canaveral in September 2016.
After nearly two years orbiting Bennu, the spacecraft found a location about the size of a few parking spaces on Earth where scientists expect there to be the biggest patch of particles small enough to be swallowed up.
The plan called for Osiris-Rex to shoot out pressurized nitrogen gas to stir up the surface, then suck up any loose pebbles or dust. Contact was expected to last just 5 to 10 seconds, with the spacecraft quickly backing away.
NASA will not know until later this week how much was actually collected, or whether the spacecraft got anything at all, the AP reported.
Scientists hope samples from Bennu will provide essential material to understanding the solar system as a whole.
According to the AP, NASA’s science mission chief, Thomas Zurbuchen, said Bennu is “something that’s out there and tells the history of our entire Earth, of the solar system, during the last billions of years.”
The sample capsule is scheduled to return to Earth and parachute into the Utah desert in 2023.
The scheduled sample extraction comes after NASA reported in August that an asteroid is headed toward Earth the day before Election Day, although the agency reported that it will likely pass Earth, with the chances of impact at less than one percent.