Thursday, 13 December, 2018

Spacecraft Arrives at Asteroid to Investigate Origin of our Solar System

Bennu as seen on approach by the OSIRIS-REx spacecraft NASA spacecraft to land on Bennu asteroid
Elijah Vega | 03 December, 2018, 22:30

Two years after launch from Cape Canaveral, NASA's OSIRIS-REx spacecraft finally reached its target Monday, slowly closing to within about four miles of the asteroid Bennu for a year-and-a-half of close-range study before attempting to collect soil and rock samples for return to Earth.

The Osiris-Rex (which stands for Origins, Spectral Interpretation, Resource Identification, Security-Regolith Explorer) is due to return the sample to Earth in September 2023.

The actual arrival of the spacecraft won't be a touchdown or landing on the asteroid.

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.

The mission launched in September 2016. It is the smallest object ever to be orbited by a human-made spacecraft.

A Japanese spacecraft, meanwhile, has been hanging out at another near-Earth asteroid since June, also for samples.

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. Its orbit switches between those of Earth and Mars, making it what's officially called a "near-Earth asteroid". The craft has enough nitrogen gas for three attempts, if this first try doesn't work.

NASA said the estimated 2.1-ounce sample size equates to about 30 sugar packets worth of dirt and rocks. It was "flexed" in space for the first time on November 14.

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"Relieved, proud, and anxious to start exploring!" tweeted lead scientist Dante Lauretta of the University of Arizona.

Scientists estimate the asteroid formed roughly 4.5 billion years ago.

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

For two years after the return, the sample will be cataloged and analyzed.

NASA has brought back comet dust and solar wind particles before, but never asteroid samples. The asteroid fits a number of criteria that make it intriguing and convenient. It will get even closer in the days ahead and go into orbit around Bennu on December 31.

An interplanetary visitor has arrived at asteroid Bennu. Carbon is the hinge upon which organic molecules hang. This is significant because water is composed of hydrogen and oxygen, two necessary components for rocket fuel. For one, it's close to Earth - as far as space goes, anyways. And Bennu is believed to be a grouping of rocks held together by gravity rather than a single object. Expect to hear lots of cheering when confirmation comes that OSIRIS-REx finally found its new home around Bennu.

It will also give vital information on how to deflect asteroids from their collision course with Earth.

Asteroids are left-overs from the original building blocks of the Solar System.

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