NASA's spacecraft arrives at asteroid Bennu

NASA's spacecraft arrives at asteroid Bennu

NASA's spacecraft arrives at asteroid Bennu

The image, which was taken by the PolyCam camera, shows Bennu at 300 pixels and has been stretched to increase contrast between highlights and shadows. Still, after two years, Osiris-Rex has arrived at Bennu.

Then, in 2020, it will reach out with its robotic arm and touch the asteroid in a maneuver Rich Kuhns, OSIRIS-REx program manager with Lockheed Martin Space Systems in Denver, described as a "gentle high-five". The spacecraft has been traveling through the solar system en route to its target Bennu for almost 27 months now and will stay about 12 miles away from the asteroid.

OSIRIS-REx has the capacity to return 46 kilograms of asteroid samples - the largest sample returned from space since the Apollo missions in the 1960s and early 1970s.

"For the past several months, Bennu has been coming into focus as I approached", said NASA's OSIRIS-REx Twitter account.

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"The best times are ahead of us, so stay tuned", OSIRIS-REx Principal Investigator Dante Lauretta, also of the University of Arizona, said in a statement. "To Bennu and back!"

The 4,560-pound spacecraft was launched atop an Atlas V rocket from Cape Canaveral, Florida, on September 8, 2016. The company built the spacecraft there. At that point, in situ science will come to an end and OSIRIS-REx will simply wait for Earth and Bennu to reach the proper positions in their orbits to begin the long trip home.

About the size of a large vehicle, the spacecraft will shadow the asteroid for a year, before scooping up some gravel for return to Earth in 2023. It is a carbon-rich, near-Earth asteroid, believed to have been created by the leftovers from the formation of the solar system.

A Japanese spacecraft has been documenting another close-to-Earth asteroid called Ryugu since June. It is not impossible that asteroids like it delivered the building blocks of life to the early Earth-the mission could help us investigate this theory.

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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.

By 2021, the window for OSIRIS-REx's slow return to Earth will open, and it'll set itself on a path that will bring it by the the third planet in September 2023. For example, the probe's measurements, and those of researchers studying the returned sample, should reveal a great deal about the resource potential of Bennu-like asteroids. (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 Earth, Lauretta stressed. It is also the first mission to study a potentially hazardous asteroid and try to determine the factors that alter their courses to bring them close to Earth.

The probe travelled about 2 billion kilometres and arrived at the 500m-wide rock on the 3rd December. Osiris is the god of the afterlife, while Bennu represents the heron and creation.

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OSIRIS-REx stands for Origins, Spectral Interpretation, Resource Identification, Security-Regolith Explorer.

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