An artist's illustration shows the NASA spacecraft OSIRIS-REx preparing for the asteroid Bennu's test. OSIRIS-REx began its final approach to Bennu on August 1
Source: NASA / Goddard / University of Arizona
A NASA Asteroid
The OSIRIS Spacecraft REx has begun final access to the large, near-Earth asteroid Bennu on Friday (August 17), NASA officials said. The milestone also marks the official launch of the OSIRIS REx mission phase "Asteroid Operations," they added.
"Today, after nearly two years of travel, I begin asteroid operations and my last overture to Bennu! #AreWeThereYet" NASA officials wrote on Friday via the mission's Twitter account @ OSIRISREx. [OSIRIS-REx: NASA’s Asteroid Sample-Return Mission in Pictures]
Today, after nearly two years of travel, I start asteroid operations and my last approach to Bennu! #AreWeThereYet
More about the upcoming phases of the mission: https://t.co/2Piswc7J1v pic.twitter.com/TkfGfHKAB5
– NASAs OSIRIS-REx (@OSIRISREx) August 17, 2018
But do not be too impatient: OSIRIS-REX is still about 2 million kilometers from Bennu and will not enter orbit around the 1,650 foot wide (500 meters) Space Rock until December 3.
The $ 800 million OSIRIS-REx mission – whose name briefly stands for Origins, Spectral Interpretation, Resource Identification, Security, Regolith Explorer – launched on September 8, 2016 from the Cape Canaveral Air Force Station in Florida.
If everything goes according to plan, the Bennu probe will be out of orbit for more than two years collecting a wealth of data. OSIRIS-REx will also search a large amount of asteroid material before leaving Bennu in March 2021. This cosmic dirt and gravel will come to Earth in September 2023 in a special return capsule.
Scientists around the world will then study the sample and look for clues to the early history and evolution of the solar system. It is believed that carbon-rich asteroids like Bennu have long since released huge amounts of vital components – complex organic compounds such as amino acids – along with plenty of water to the earth. The Bennu probe could also shed light on the early history of life on our planet, mission team members said.
In addition, Bennu is a potentially dangerous asteroid that could someday align the Earth with the crosshairs. The data collected by OSIRIS-REx from orbit, as well as details about the composition and structure of the space rock from the analysis of the returned sample, could help humanity defend itself better against asteroid threats, NASA officials said.
It's exciting time to study asteroids. In June, the Japanese space probe Hayabusa2 reached an orbit around the near-Earth asteroid Ryugu. Hayabusa2 will also gather samples that are expected to come to Earth by the end of 2020.