A NASA spacecraft powered by EaglePicher batteries snatched rock and dust Tuesday from the surface of an asteroid 200 million miles from Earth.
Samples retrieved from the asteroid Bennu will be returned to Earth in 2023 and could one day help scientists answer questions concerning the origins of the universe. The big, black asteroid, taller than New York Cityâ€™s Empire State Building, dates back to when the solar system was formed 4.5 billion years ago.
Kenneth Getzandanner, Osiris-REx flight dynamics manager from the Maryland-based Goddard Space Flight Center, called the rendezvous a “definite historical first.” He had watched the contact with members of his navigation team, who had been responsible for designing and feeding complicated maneuvers into the onboard guidance computers controlling the spacecraft.
“It was a little surreal watching the event live and participating in it,” he said in a phone interview Tuesday evening. The good news? What happened on their computer screens, he said, “looked exactly like the rehearsals did.”
Beginning at 2 p.m. Tuesday, the van-sized spacecraft began a slow descent toward the asteroidâ€™s surface. Hovering just above the boulder-strewn surface, the craftâ€™s collection device â€” described by one NASA scientist as looking like â€śan air filter for a â€™57 Chevy on the end of a â€¦ pogo stickâ€ť â€” touched Bennuâ€™s surface at 5:11 p.m. It was the only piece of the $80 million spacecraft making contact with the asteroid. Moments later, a compressed jet of nitrogen gas stirred up a debris field of tiny rock and dust particles to be gathered into the sampler head at the end of the probeâ€™s 11-foot robotic arm. Moments later, Osiris-REx completed its back-away burn from the asteroid.
Over the next two days, Getzandanner said, scientists will assess whether the probe’s arm captured the asteroid material. If Tuesday’s attempt failed, the probe has enough fuel and nitrogen for two more tries.
“We’re optimistic that we got it done on this attempt,” he added.
The spacecraft is expected to reach EarthÂ on Sept. 24, 2023,Â and eject its sample return capsule before diverting to orbit the sun. The sample capsule, protected by a heat shield, will land in the desert near Salt Lake City.
NASAâ€™s spacecraft never would have left the ground, let alone escaped Earth orbit, without the Joplin-made batteries.
According to Ron Nowlin, senior vice president of aerospace systems for EaglePicher, the string of successes the companyâ€™s batteries have performed on NASAâ€™s various space missions â€”Â going back to 1958â€™s Explorer 1 satellite launch â€” never gets old.
â€śItâ€™s pretty exciting, especially on a mission like this one, where youâ€™re doing something thatâ€™s a little bit unique,â€ť Nowlin said Tuesday. â€śWhen you look at all these research missions, itâ€™s pretty amazing that we have the ability to go millions and millions of miles in space and bring something back that (NASA) will be able to study to see if we can find out more about the universe and maybe the origins of life.â€ť
Launched on Sept. 8, 2016, the Lockheed Martin Space Systems-built spacecraft is powered by four EaglePicher batteries, Nowlin said. Two 28-volt, 30-amp lithium-ion batteries, charged by the craftâ€™s solar panels, provide power to the spacecraft’s primary section. These two main batteries, Nowlin said, â€śare about the size of a 12- to 18-inch cube.â€ť As the main craft nears Earth in 2023, the return capsule, which will enter Earth orbit at a speed of 27,000 mph, will be released. This secondary craft is powered by two 28-volt, 17-amp lithium-ion batteries.
The Delta V rocket, which launched the craft out of Earthâ€™s orbit in 2016, had between 10 and 14 of the company’s silver-zinc batteries powering it.
The batteries found on the spacecraft were first built in 2014, Nowlin said, adding: â€śWe make stuff that stays around for a long time.â€ťÂ The companyâ€™s various batteries have functioned in the harsh environment of space for 2.7 billion cell-hours without a single failure.
Asked if it was business as usual at EaglePicher, Nowlin chuckled.Â
â€śEverybody here kind of reads some of the press about it, and they get a little excited about it, but it does become a little bit routine,” he said. “Weâ€™ll see more high-fiving when the sample actually comes back to Earth.â€ť
Nowlin continued, â€śItâ€™s always exciting to see the first launches, and itâ€™s always exciting to see the success at the end.â€ť