NOVA “Touching the Asteroid” Premieres Wednesday, October 21 at 9 p.m. ET/8C on PBS

NASA’s OSIRIS-REx mission readies itself to touch the surface of asteroid Bennu. (Credits: NASA/Goddard/University of Arizona)

BOSTON (PBS PR) —TOUCHING THE ASTEROID, a one-hour NOVA special about the daring and unprecedented space mission to grab a piece of a near-Earth asteroid, premieres on PBS on Wednesday, October 21 at 9 p.m. ET/8C on PBS. The program will also stream on NOVA’s YouTube channel.

On October 20, 2020, a NASA spacecraft called OSIRIS-REx will attempt to reach out and retrieve samples from an asteroid named Bennu to bring them back to Earth. The OSIRIS-REx team, operating the spacecraft remotely from Colorado, has just three chances to extend its spacecraft’s specialized arm, touch down for a mere five seconds, and collect material from the surface of Bennu. If they can pull it off, scientists could gain great insight into Earth’s own origins—and even learn to defend against rogue asteroids that may one day threaten our planet.

In TOUCHING THE ASTEROID, NOVA takes viewers inside the mission as the team embarks on a daunting quest that pushes the boundaries of what robotic spacecrafts like OSIRIS-REx are capable of. The film offers a clear-eyed look into the painstaking work that goes into answering, piece by piece, big questions about how our solar system was made and how life on Earth began. TOUCHING THE ASTEROID features interviews with key members of the OSIRIS-REx team, including project lead Dante Lauretta, Deputy Project Manager Mike Moreau, and Image Processing Lead  Scientist Daniella DellaGiustina, as well as other leaders in astronomy and planetary science like Chief Astronomer and Planetarium Director for the Franklin Institute Derrick Pitts.

“While making this film, I was constantly amazed at what this team of space explorers was able to accomplish — as well as their tenacity and unadulterated desire to answer big questions about our universe,” said producer Terri Randall of Randall Productions. “Despite unforeseen complications to the mission, they never lost enthusiasm for understanding where we came from and how our solar system came to be. I hope that with TOUCHING THE ASTEROID, NOVA viewers can share in that same joy of discovery and exploration.”

TOUCHING THE ASTEROID, filmed over the last year, captures the mission’s dramatic twists and turns as the OSIRIS-REx team faces unexpected setbacks and is forced to course correct on the fly — and from hundreds of thousands of miles away. Interviews with the scientistsdocument their dismay upon discovering that Bennu’s surface is not smooth and beach-like as expected — a development that will further complicate an already tricky landing as well as their shock at finding pieces of rock and dust flying off the asteroid, creating potentially hazardous conditions for the spacecraft.

“The OSIRIS-REx mission has faced numerous ups and downs over the past four years. Viewers will be fascinated to watch the space explorers’ honest reactions to hurdles they didn’t anticipate but will ultimately be inspired by how they prevail in the name of exploration,” said NOVA Co-Executive Producer Chris Schmidt. “TOUCHING THE ASTEROID makes clear why this team has worked tirelessly for years to achieve this briefest of encounters with an asteroid — as well as the tantalizing possibilities that will spring from it.”

TOUCHING THE ASTEROID also traces the dramatic history of previous attempts to grab bits and pieces of distant space rocks — including Japan’s rocky, but ultimately successful Hayabusa mission which brought a bit of asteroid dust and dirt back to Earth for the first time. Filmmakers also shed light on why Bennu in particular can unlock secrets about the earliest periods in the history of our solar system and the origins of life on earth.

If all goes according to plan, OSIRIS-REx will be the largest sample collection robotically in the history of solar system exploration — and the first U.S. mission to successfully retrieve asteroid samples. The other missions that retrieved material from asteroids and comets in the past only ever acquired small quantities of tiny dust particles narrower than the width of a human hair. OSIRIS-REx could collect up to 70 oz — thousands of times more material than has ever been brought back to Earth from an asteroid.

“It’s incredible to realize that after decades of space exploration, beyond the moon rocks brought back by the Apollo missions, humans haven’t retrieved even an ounce-worth of dust from the rest of the solar system,” says NOVA Co-Executive Producer Julia Cort. “If OSIRIS-REx succeeds, it will bring back material that has been largely unchanged since our solar system first formed over 4.5 billion years ago, providing scientists with an unprecedented window into our own origins.”

As the world holds its breath in anticipation of the mission’s results, TOUCHING THE ASTEROID offers viewers the opportunity to journey with the team through their highs and lows and to unpack the significance of this daring quest.

TOUCHING THE ASTEROID premieres Wednesday, October 21 at 9 p.m. ET/8C on PBS and will be available for streaming online and on the PBS video app.

TOUCHING THE ASTEROID is A NOVA Production by Terri Randall Productions for GBH Boston in association with ARTE. Edited by Jedd Ehrmann. Written, Produced and Directed by Terri Randall. Executive Producers for NOVA are Julia Cort and Chris Schmidt. NOVA is a production of GBH Boston.

National corporate funding for NOVA is provided by Draper. Major funding for NOVA is provided by the David H. Koch Fund for Science, the Corporation for Public Broadcasting, and PBS viewers. Additional funding is provided by the NOVA Science Trust.

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