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NASA touches down on asteroid the size of the Empire State Building in historic mission

NASA did it!
Credit: NASA/Goddard/University of Arizona

ST. PETERSBURG, Fla. — NASA did it!

The Osiris-Rex spacecraft touched down Tuesday on asteroid Bennu to collect a bit of material for study on Earth.

It could be about a week before scientists know how much asteroid rocks and dust were grabbed before deciding whether the spacecraft should have another go. An update on its progress is expected Wednesday.

If enough is collected, Osiris-Rex will return back to Earth in 2023 -- it's currently some 200 million miles away.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.

The previous story is below.

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NASA is getting ready to "TAG" the 4.5 billion-year-old "rubble pile" asteroid Bennu, but it's nothing like the game you played as a child.

"TAG" stands for touch-and-go which is exactly what the Origins, Spectral Interpretation, Resource Identification, Security-Regolith Explorer (OSIRIS-REx) mission is looking to do with an asteroid 200 million miles from Earth.

Oh, and don't forget Bennu is about as tall as the Empire State Building and could "potentially threaten Earth late in the next century, with a 1‐in‐2,700 chance of impacting our planet during one of its close approaches," according to NASA

The historic mission for the agency is set to take place at 6:12 p.m. EDT, Tuesday, Oct. 20.

Easy, right? Wrong.

It's actually very difficult for several reasons, but the simplest appears to be something we have back here on Earth -- rocks. 

When OSIRIS-REx makes its approach to the asteroid it has a set zone called "Nightingale" where it is programmed to take the sample. But when the arm extends to touch the surface if there are large rocks in the way it could fail to capture enough of a sample, if any. 

This and other possible issues are why the team overseeing the mission has three tries to collect the 60-gram sample needed by scientists to examine. 

"There are several things that could go wrong and we also have to be prepared that we won't be successful on our first try at Nightingale," Deputy Project Manager Mike Moreau said.

And that's why they have run several what-ifs scenarios, built a hazard map and have spent the last two years navigating around Bennu, according to the "TAG" team.

As for why NASA is attempting the mission? It's because Bennu contains material from the early solar system and could contain "molecular precursors" to life and Earth's oceans, according to the agency.

Meaning that samples from the ancient asteroid could tell us secrets about the origin of all life on Earth. But, whatever secrets they uncover, NASA is ready. 

"OSIRIS-REx is now ready to take a sample of this ancient relic of our solar system and bring its stories and secrets home to Earth," it said in a release.

CLICK HERE: FOR 10 QUICK FACTS ABOUT BENNU FROM NASA

Live coverage of the spacecraft’s descent to the asteroid’s surface will be managed by Lockheed Martin Space and is set to begin at 5 p.m. on NASA TV and the agency’s website.

Several official NASA pages will also be hosting a virtual social event on Facebook to mark the historic moment. 

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