NASA’s OSIRIS-REx Spacecraft Arrives at Asteroid Bennu

Leonid Kulik  NASA  Wikipedia

Leonid Kulik NASA Wikipedia

America's Trinity Chavez has the details of the years-long $800 million mission.

OSIRIS-REx will fist spend up to a year in the depths of space before it blasts off on an Earth-bound trajectory in March 2021.

On Monday, the USA 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.

Sitting at mission control at the Denver offices of Lockheed Martin, which operates the spacecraft for NASA, engineer Javi Cerna waited for the signal indicating OSIRIS-REx had begun the burn needed to bring it close to its target.

Spacecrafts have never before orbited a cosmic body as small as Bennu, which measures at just 500m (1,600ft) across. That makes it a near-Earth asteroid, like the one Japan's Hayabusa-2 mission is now studying. This is called the Hill Sphere, and at that point you can say OSIRIS-REx was "at" the asteroid. It is the smallest object ever to be orbited by a human-made spacecraft.

OSIRIS-REx has a camera suite, a laser altimeter for 3D mapping, a thermal emission spectrometer to take temperature and mineral content and spectrometers to measure X-rays, almost infrared and visible light. 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.

During the five-second maneuver, compressed nitrogen gas will shoot into the collector, stirring up and lifting small rocks and soil.

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The arm has a full range of motion, with joints capable of movement comparable to shoulder, elbow and wrist joints.

A fun, interactive program on NASA's OSIRIS-REx page takes you through the stages of the spacecraft's mission. At the time of the mission's asteroid selection in 2005, there were only 192 asteroids classified as Near Earth Objects that met NASA's proximity requirements.

But where is that asteroid and its visiting spacecraft, which is now two years into its journey? He expects those pictures to be back on Earth around 10 December, when a press conference is scheduled at the AGU fall meeting in Washington, D.C. There, the OSIRIS-REx team plans to present early Bennu science results. By precisely measuring that pull, his team can begin to map out the asteroid's gravitational field, essential information for any spaceflight operation.

Why did NASA select Bennu out of the 780,000 known asteroids in our solar system?

Studying the sample in terrestrial labs, scientists hope to uncover clues about the birth of the planets and the origins of Earth's water and life. The asteroid fits a number of criteria that make it intriguing and convenient. Indeed, OSIRIS-REx isn't even in orbit around the 1,650-foot-wide (500 meters) Bennu yet; it's now flying alongside the asteroid, just beginning to take its measure in detail. Both Bennu and Ryugu are near-earth asteroids, with a diameter of about 500 meters and 900 meters respectively.

OSIRIS-REx mission marks many firsts in space exploration.

"But this is all dependent on the outcome of a very close approach that Bennu has with Earth in September 2135", Johnson said. 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. Bennu may be on collision course with Earth in the future. "But while the spacecraft might tell us some things about where we have been and where we are headed, it also can remind us of where we are right now", NASA officials said in a statement.

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