After two-year journey, NASA Osiris-Rex spacecraft arrives at asteroid Bennu

04 December, 2018, 13:57 | Author: Tara Reeves
  • Leonid Kulik  NASA  Wikipedia

OSIRIS-REx was within 12 miles of Bennu's surface - about the distance between the White House and NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center, which manages the spacecraft. It will get even closer in the days ahead and go into orbit around Bennu on December 31. On December 31, OSIRIS-REx will enter an orbit around the asteroid, making it the smallest object ever orbited by a spacecraft.

OSIRIS-REx, launched in September 2016, will come even closer to Bennu in the coming month and spend nearly one year scrutinising the asteroid before selecting a location that is safe and scientifically valuable to collect the sample. OSIRIS-REx will actually need to spend a good deal of time hanging out in orbit around Bennu before it makes its move, so today is just confirmation of the probe's arrival. "To Bennu and back!"

With Bennu some 76 million miles (122 million kilometers) away, it took seven minutes for word to get from the spacecraft to flight controllers at Lockheed Martin in Littleton, Colorado.

The spacecraft design, a 4,650 pound craft when fueled, draws on Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter heritage and was built in their Denver facility.

The mission, headed by principal investigator Dante Lauretta, was planned as a mission to the asteroid then known as 1999 RQ36, an approximately 500 meter (0.5 km) diameter potentially hazardous asteroid (PHA) that has a 1 in 1800 chance of impacting Earth in 2182.

OSIRIS-REx scientists expect to reveal the results of their early surveys of Bennu next week at the fall meeting of the American Geophysical Union in Washington.

Once landing on Bennu the 3.5-metre-long probe will spend two years exploring the surface. Bennu is essentially a leftover from the formation of our solar system billions of years ago, although some of the minerals inside it could be even older. As such, it's an astronomical time capsule.

Osiris-Rex reached the "preliminary survey" phase of its mission on Monday, soaring to within 20km of the asteroid.

Accordingly, NASA wants to know exactly what Bennu - and asteroids like it - are composed of, should future engineers have to use lasers or still-unknown technology to deflect the ominous space rock away from our planet.

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Using a circular device much like a car's air filter, and a reverse vacuum to stir up and collect dust, the device aims to grab about two ounces (60 grams) of material from the asteroid's surface, and return it to Earth for further study.

Also in 2019, the team will begin selecting boulder-free candidate sites from which to collect a sample for return to Earth.

The collection - parachuting down to Utah - would represent the biggest cosmic haul since the Apollo astronauts hand-delivered moon rocks to Earth in the late 1960s and early 1970s.

Asteroids are left-overs from the original building blocks of the Solar System.

In August, the craft snapped its first image of asteroid Bennu. (Relax. They don't think it will.) Its closest approach to Earth is every six years and it orbits the Sun on the same plane as Earth.

Contact with Bennu will not significantly change its orbit or make it more unsafe to us, Lauretta stressed.

Scientists look forward to having some real bits of asteroid back here on Earth to analyse.

The spacecraft launched on September 8, 2016 at 19:05 EST aboard an Atlas V rocket. Its odometer read 1.2bn miles (2bn km) as of Monday. In July 2020, after a year and a half of detailed mapping and rehearsals, OSIRIS-REx will briefly push TAGSAM, shaped somewhat like an inverted pie dish, into contact with the surface of Bennu.

The Osiris-Rex (which stands for Origins, Spectral Interpretation, Resource Identification, Security-Regolith Explorer) is due to return the sample to Earth in September 2023.



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