Spacecraft Arrives at Asteroid to Investigate Origin of our Solar System


Flight controllers applauded and exchanged high-fives on Monday once confirmation came through that Osiris-Rex made it to Bennu - exactly one week after Nasa landed a spacecraft on Mars.

In 2020, after 18 months of observations, OSIRIS-REx will swoop close to Bennu and extend a long robotic arm equipped with its sample-collecting instrument, called TAGSAM.

The Origins, Spectral Interpretation, Resource Identification, Security-Regolith Explorer (OSIRIS-REx) spacecraft arrives at the near-Earth asteroid Bennu today. It launched in September 2016 and will spend two years up close and personal with Bennu. For the asteroid, the name symbolizes the lessons it could have for researchers.

On Tuesday, the spacecraft will fly within 5 miles of Bennu, which will help design future orbits and map the surface. The spacecraft will spend nearly a year surveying the asteroid with five scientific instruments with the goal of selecting a location that is safe and scientifically interesting to collect the sample of the asteroid.

It is the first USA attempt to gather asteroid samples for return to Earth, something only Japan has accomplished so far. "To Bennu and back!" No spacecraft has ever orbited such a small cosmic body.

A Japanese spacecraft, meanwhile, has been hanging out at another near-Earth asteroid since June, also for samples. This latest rock is named Ryugu and is about double the size of Bennu. As such, it's an astronomical time capsule.

This will be packed away in a sterile capsule to be returned home in 2023.

If all goes well, the craft will bring the sample back to Earth in September 2023.

Scientists estimate the asteroid formed roughly 4.5 billion years ago. The asteroid fits a number of criteria that make it intriguing and convenient.

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Bennu is so small, dark and distant (about 75 million miles from Earth at the moment) that scientists could only theorize about what it might look like when they launched OSIRIS-REx two years ago.

Both Bennu and Ryugu are considered potentially hazardous asteroids.

But there's still a lot to learn about the object, said University of Arizona Planetary Scientist Bashar Rizk, who oversees three of OSIRIS-REx's cameras.

The asteroid could pass close to Earth, closer than the moon, in 2135, with even closer approaches possible in 2175 and 2195. It is Japan's second asteroid mission. Bennu may contain the molecular precursors to the origin of life and the Earth's oceans.

'We know from having studied Bennu through Earth- and space-based telescopes that it is a carbonaceous, or carbon-rich, asteroid.

NASA's OSIRIS-REx spacecraft reached asteroid Bennu on Monday after traveling more than 1 billion miles through space. This knocked it through space until an orbit close to Earth locked it in place.

'Besides carbon, Bennu also might have another component important to life: water, which is trapped in the minerals that make up the asteroid'. It will get even closer in the days ahead and go into orbit around Bennu on December 31.

Below is a series of images taken by OSIRIS-REx at a distance of about 80 km (50 mi.) The images constitute one full revolution of the asteroid. "When we understand Bennu, we will understand something fundamental about our solar system".