NASA’s first asteroid sample-collector arrives at target, Bennu

NASA’s first asteroid sample-collector arrives at target, Bennu

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.

"Standby for Bennu arrival", Cerna announced.

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 is the god of the afterlife, while Bennu represents the heron and creation.

NASA's mission to send a probe to an asteroid, dig up a chunk, and send the material back to Earth is now half-way complete.

Although the OSIRIS-REx mission has futuristic potential, the mission - if fully successful - will shed critical light on Earth's distant past, some four billion years ago. The rapid rotation also sends small rocks on the asteroid's surface flying into space, meaning there's nothing there for the spacecraft to collect. Bennu's nearly 500 meters in diameter, and rotates only once every 4.3 hours. Scientists think it might be older than the Solar System itself, which is about 4.6 billion years ago.

To their delight, newly acquired close-ups of the asteroid closely match their predictions.

A fun, interactive program on NASA's OSIRIS-REx page takes you through the stages of the spacecraft's mission. If you stood at Bennu's North Pole and jumped, you would achieve escape velocity and go soaring off into the void.

OSIRIS-REx and its instruments.

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

The US space agency hopes to use OSIRIS-REx to bring back the largest payload of space samples since the Apollo era of the 1960s and 1970s, when American explorers collected and carried back to Earth 842 pounds (382 kilograms) of Moon rocks.

Engineers will uplink new orbital instructions to the spacecraft every day (a typical planetary mission might update its trajectory only once a week, Adam said). OSIRIS-REx fired its thrusters for a small burn, putting it about 4.3 miles from Bennu, marking the end of its journey to the asteroid.

The sample from Bennu, a near-Earth asteroid, could help scientists understand not only more about asteroids that could impact Earth but about how planets formed and life began. An asteroid like Bennu, which contains frozen water, may have brought water to Earth during an ancient collision - a collision that ultimately may have allowed life to flourish on our humble blue home.

"Relieved, proud, and anxious to start exploring!"

In 2021, it will be time for the spacecraft to essentially turn around and begin its two-year journey home. It's expected to arrive on September 2023 and the sealed sample contained will reenter the atmosphere using a heat shield and float back to scientists via parachute into the Utah desert. NASA scientists think the 484-meter-wide rock was once part of a much larger asteroid, which Space.com suggests was as large as the USA state of CT (which is 110 miles wide and 70 miles long), that was blown apart by some colossal collision a billion years ago. Asteroid scientists are eager for "bonanza" of discoveries that await, as one researcher at mission control put it.

This article was originally published by The Washington Post.

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