Published: Tue, December 04, 2018
Sci-tech | By Patricia Wade

Watch NASA live stream the arrival of its OSIRIS-REx asteroid probe

Watch NASA live stream the arrival of its OSIRIS-REx asteroid probe

Though small asteroids can rotate very quickly, Bennu has a diameter just a bit bigger than the height of the Empire State Building and rotates relatively slowly, each 4.3 hours.

The mission: It will survey the asteroid from an orbit of roughly one mile, before attempting to bounce off the surface in July 2020 and collect a sample, using nitrogen gas to shift rock and other materials so it can be grabbed by an arm mechanism.

A rocket carrying NASA's Origins, Spectral Interpretation, Resource Identification, Security-Regolith Explorer (OSIRIS-REx) spacecraft lifts off on September 8, 2016 at Cape Canaveral, Florida.

Nasa's deep space explorer Osiris-Rex flew on Monday (Dec 3) to within 20km of its destination, a skyscraper-sized asteroid believed to hold organic compounds fundamental to life as well as the potential to collide with Earth in about 150 years.

Asteroids could even serve as fuel stations for robotic and human missions if we can unlock the hydrogen and oxygen inside them, NASA said. OSIRIS-REx was finally at the doorstep of its new home.

In addition, it is larger than 200 meters and so does not spin rapidly (which would complicate sample retrieval), and it is a primitive carbon-rich leftover from the beginnings of the solar system, with organic molecules, volatiles, and amino acids that could tell us how life began on Earth.

Why Did NASA Send OSIRIS-REx to Bennu?

In mid-2020 the sample collection phase will start and the TAG maneuver to hover over the matchpoint and grab the sample is now set for July of that year. Carbon is the hinge upon which organic molecules hang. Over the past several months, OSIRIS REx has been creeping toward Bennu, and finally reached the space rock when it was about 80 million miles (129 million kilometers) from Earth. To their delight, newly acquired close-ups of the asteroid closely match their predictions.

"Osiris-Rex" ultimate goal is to bring back a regolith sample of at least 2.1 ounces.

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Asteroids are of extreme interest to scientists. If you stood at Bennu's North Pole and jumped, you would achieve escape velocity and go soaring off into the void.

From the end of February to early June 2019, OSIRIS-REx will start two detailed survey phases which will generate chemical composition and digital terrain maps along with global image mosaics and at the end of the process will have enough information to select up to 12 candidate sampling sites. This ensures that the solar radiation pressure remains constant, so engineers can make sure they continuously counteract it.

Both the spacecraft and the asteroid's names come from Egyptian mythology.

Bennu is also interesting to NASA for a separate reason - there's a small chance it could cause us major problems in the 22nd Century. Lauretta said there was a chance of sending the carrier spacecraft on an extended mission after that, but for now, he wants the team to stay focused on the primary mission. "We can't wait to get to work studying and characterizing Bennu's rough and rugged surface to find out where the right spot is to collect the sample and bring it back to Earth". Then it must turn around and retrace its path back home. The sample container is planned to break loose and head toward Earth in 2021.

After a two-year chase, a NASA spacecraft arrived Monday at the ancient asteroid Bennu, its first visitor in billions of years.

NASA has had a busy few months already but its OSIRIS-REx asteroid probe isn't waiting for anyone. Researchers will provide a more precise description at a scientific meeting next Monday in Washington.

"It's been a long time coming for the arrival, and we're really looking forward to the next chapter of this mission", Heather Enos, the OSIRIS-REx deputy principal investigator from the University of Arizona, said in a NASA press video.

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