Published: Thu, December 06, 2018
Sci-tech | By Patricia Wade

NASA's OSIRIS-REx spacecraft arrives at asteroid

NASA's OSIRIS-REx spacecraft arrives at asteroid

A few approaches will put the probe within 4.4 miles of the asteroid's surface. America's Trinity Chavez has the details of the years-long $800 million mission.

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 select a location that is safe and scientifically valuable to collect the sample. Since the impact, Bennu seems to have gradually spiraled closer to the sun.

For it to be able to do so, OSIRIS will first have to refine estimates of Bennu's mass and spin rate and generate a more precise model of its shape. It's easier to land on, and once on the surface, there will be plenty of material to sample.

For the past two years, the OSIRIS-REx spacecraft has sailed across the solar system by the light of the stars.

'Besides carbon, Bennu also might have another component important to life: water, which is trapped in the minerals that make up the asteroid'.

Goddard provides overall mission management, systems engineering and the safety and mission assurance for OSIRIS-REx. The craft has enough nitrogen gas for three attempts, if this first try doesn't work.

If Bennu hit our planet, it would explode with more force than all the nuclear weapons detonated in history, and could start fires across an area four times the size of Britain. It was "flexed" in space for the first time on November 14. The space probe will depart the asteroid in March 2021 and fly back to Earth, carrying samples it will have retrieved from Bennu.

Stowing the sample
Stowing the sample

The robotic explorer Osiris-Rex pulled within 12 miles (19 kilometers) of the diamond-shaped space rock. A rock which formed in the early solar system and has been preserved by the vacuum of space, Bennu has remained relatively unchanged since its creation.

The next two years is going to be an exciting one for small body research. OSIRIS-REx is the third mission in NASA's New Frontiers Program, which is managed by NASA's Marshall Space Flight Center in Huntsville, Alabama for the agency's Science Mission Directorate in Washington. OSIRIS-REx will spend the next 18 months there, surveying the landscape and probing Bennu's chemical makeup before finally selecting what piece of the asteroid it wants to bring back home. The asteroid fits a number of criteria that make it intriguing and convenient. Bennu orbits the Sun between the Earth and Mars.

With gravity so weak, other factors could potentially knock OSIRIS-REx off course.

The asteroid could pass close to Earth, closer than the moon, in 2135, with even closer approaches possible in 2175 and 2195.

Scientists contend the more they learn about asteroids, the better equipped Earth will be in heading off a truly catastrophic strike. Bennu may contain the molecular precursors to the origin of life and the Earth's oceans. 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. This knocked it through space until an orbit close to Earth locked it in place. This could also explain how it ended up as a near-Earth asteroid.

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