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First NASA probe to return asteroid sample reaches destination

06 December 2018

OSIRIS-REx is the size of a large family auto and will hover around the asteroid for a year before it makes its attempt at collecting the samples.

On Monday, the U.S. space agency's OSIRIS-REx spacecraft arrived at a nearby asteroid that's of great importance to scientists: it might have answers about what early Earth was like, but there's a decent chance it might hit us, too. At worst, Bennu would carve out a crater during a projected close call 150 years from now.

"The OSIRIS-REx team is proud to cross another major milestone off our list - asteroid arrival", said Dante Lauretta, OSIRIS-REx principal investigator at the University of Arizona, Tucson. That probability ranks Bennu No. 2 on NASA's catalog of 72 near-Earth objects potentially capable of hitting the planet.

OSIRIS-REx will set a record for the closest distance that a spacecraft has ever orbited a small body, Enos added. For the asteroid, the name symbolizes the lessons it could have for researchers.

This series of images taken by NASA's OSIRIS-REx spacecraft shows Bennu in one full rotation from a distance of around 50 miles (80 km).

Meanwhile, the sample will plummet back down to Earth in what looks like a tiny Apollo capsule, landing somewhere in the Utah desert to be collected by curious NASA scientists. So we going to get a lot of information about Bennu while we're at the asteroid that will inform us in terms of ultimately where we will go to the surface to collect our sample.

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Goddard provides overall mission management, systems engineering and the safety and mission assurance for OSIRIS-REx.

On Tuesday, the spacecraft will fly within 5 miles of Bennu, which will help design future orbits and map the surface.

The spacecraft has enough gas to attempt three sample collections from the surface. This means that the components that make up the asteroid could be the same materials that formed the planets and sun in our solar system. That water or the asteroid's metals might one day serve as useful resources, so space explorers wouldn't need to bring these heavy materials with them.

Scientists say that material from a carbon-rich asteroid such as Bennu could hold evidence that dates back to the beginning of our solar system 4.5 billion years ago. It's because of objects like Bennu that these resources were delivered to Earth during its formation.

'We have arrived, ' technicians announced, spurring high-fives and clapping around the control room. It is about 1,600 feet (488 meters) wide and most likely broke away from a larger asteroid between Mars and Jupiter a couple of billion years ago. This knocked it through space until an orbit close to Earth locked it in place. Jonathan McDowell, an astronomer at the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics, said that OSIRIS-REx arrived within Bennu's Hill Sphere - the region where the asteroid's gravity field is stronger than the Sun's - on 1 December. This could also explain how it ended up as a near-Earth asteroid.

"When we understand Bennu, we will understand something fundamental about our solar system". It will first survey the asteroid's surface for a year, before selecting a safe and "scientifically interesting' location to scoop up some rocks".

First NASA probe to return asteroid sample reaches destination