Two years after launching from Florida, a NASA spacecraft is approaching an ancient asteroid, Bennu, for a sample of space dust that might provide clues to the beginning of life in the solar system.
The spaceship OSIRIS -REx, has even made its first blurred image of the cosmic body, which is about the size of a small mountain, about 500 meters in diameter.
The spacecraft is said to orbit Bennu and reach out to high-five with a robotic arm, then return the sample it collects to Earth in 2023. Bennu's first pictures were taken on August 1
"This is closest to Bennu," said Dante Lauretta, OSIRIS-REx Principal Investigator at the University of Arizona, Tucson. 19659002] "This is significant in that we are now near the asteroid, closer than we ever were, even during the close approach of the asteroid to the earth."
Bennu was selected from some 500,000 asteroids in the solar system because it circles near the Earth's path around the Sun, it's the right size for scientific study, and is one of NASA's oldest asteroids known.
Astronomers say it represents a small risk – a 2,700 chance – of colliding with Earth in 2135. It's also a carbon-rich asteroid, the kind of cosmic body that could have delivered to the Earth billions of years ago life-giving materials.
The OSIRIS REx mission is not the first ever to visit an asteroid and try to return samples – Japan has done so before and Europe has managed to land on a comet. But it's the first asteroid probe return mission for NASA, and it aims to bring the largest sample ever on the order of 2.1 ounces (60 grams).
The US men who walked on the moon during the Apollo era of the 1960s and 1970s collected and returned to Earth 842 pounds (382 kilograms) of lunar rock.
In December, the spacecraft will conduct a detailed study of the surface of the asteroid, NASA has defined as "arrival" on the asteroid. Orbital insertion is expected on December 31st. However, the sample will not be taken until July 2020.
OSIRIS-REx stands for Origins, Spectral Interpretation, Resource Identification, Security Regolith Explorer
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