Oct. 21 (UPI) -- Images released Wednesday by NASA suggest the OSIRIS-REx mission's Touch-And-Go sample collection event was a success.
Preliminary data collected during Tuesday's touchdown -- and analyzed by scientists shortly afterwards -- suggested the OSIRIS-REx spacecraft had performed as expected.
The latest images have offered scientists added confidence that the craft's sampling tool, the so-called Touch-And-Go Sample Acquisition Mechanism, or TAGSAM, captured rocks and dust from Bennu's surface.
"A lot of us were up really late last night, watching the images come down one by one," Dante Lauretta, OSIRIS-REx principal investigator and researcher at the University of Arizona, said Wednesday during a press conference.
What Lauretta called "the money shot," the image showing the arm's contact with the asteroid's regolith, didn't reach Earth until the wee hours of Wednesday morning.
NASA scientists strung together still images snapped by the SamCam during the sample collection to create a video and animate the mission breakthrough.
In describing the images-turned-video, Lauretta said the evidence of rock fragmentation -- created by the force of the arm's touchdown -- and movement in the surrounding regolith during the touchdown bodes well for the mission's success.
"Bottom line is that from the analysis that we've gotten from the images so far, is that the sampling event went really well, way better than we could have ever imagined," Lauretta said. "I think that the chances that there is material inside the TAGSAM head have gone way up based on the analysis from these images."
Prior to the touchdown event, OSIRIS-REx spacecraft had been tightly orbiting Bennu, capturing high-definition images of the asteroid's surface. But because the spacecraft created a significant debris field during its touchdown, OSIRIS-REx aggressively fired its thrusters to propel quickly away from the asteroid and avoid potential collisions with rock fragments.
Like the touchdown, researchers suggest the spacecraft's escape maneuver was a success. OSIRIS-REx will continue backing away from the asteroid until Friday, when it will hit the brakes at a distance of roughly 50 miles.
"The spacecraft performance was phenomenal all throughout the TAG event, performing just as planned," Sandra Freund, OSIRIS-REx mission operations manager and systems engineer at Lockheed Martin Space, said during Wednesday's press conference.
Moving forward, OSIRIS-REx will perform several spacecraft activities that will give mission scientists and engineers a better sense of how much regolith the craft's TAGSAM head captured.
To start, the craft's sampling arm will angle the TAGSAM so that OSIRIS-REx's camera can take images of its sampling pads and inside the sampling head. Scientists hope the images will reveal bits of trapped rock fragments and compacted dust.
Next, the spacecraft will extend its arm and TAGSAM and spin around. Instruments will measure the moment of inertia and compare the data to measurements made before the sampling event. The experiment will help scientists calculate how much mass is captured inside the sampling head.
Mission engineers will also run a full spacecraft systems checkup next week to gather more TAG event performance data.