Dante Lauretta is serene as he prepares for the 17 seconds he’s worked toward for the past 16 years.
Lauretta, a University of Arizona planetary scientist, is transfixed by a monitor showing three simulated views of a rubbly, top-shaped object floating in a sea of stars. That’s the asteroid known as 101955 Bennu. He’s watching it while perched on an upholstered metal stool inside an unassuming building in Littleton, Colorado. With its cinder-block hallways, pop-out ceiling panels, and the occasional wasp problem, the building could be mistaken for a run-of-the-mill office suite. But the spacecraft decals on the walls and the labels above each cubicle—Electrical Power; Telecom; Guidance, Navigation & Control—reveal its true function: mission control at Lockheed Martin Space.
It’s 1:49 p.m. mountain time on October 20, 2020, and the screen shows Bennu sitting within a green hoop that represents the orbit of a NASA spacecraft with a mouthful of a name: the Origins, Spectral Interpretation, Resource Identification, and Security-Regolith Explorer—OSIRIS-REx for short. In less than three hours, this robotic emissary will attempt to descend and touch Bennu for the first time, hopefully trapping a sample of extraterrestrial dust and pebbles for return to Earth. (How did NASA land on and grab stuff from an astroid?)