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 spacecraft OSIRIS -REx – Origins, Spectral Interpretation, Resource Identification, Safety – Regolith Explorer – has even made its first blurry image of the cosmic body, about the size of a small mountain about 500 meters in diameter. The spacecraft is said to orbit Bennu and reach its surface with a robotic arm on "High-Five" and then return the sample that it collects to Earth in 2023.
Bennu's first images were taken on August 1
Carbon Rich Asteroid
Bennu has been out of the 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 studies, and is one of NASA's oldest asteroids. Astronomers say it presents a small risk – a 1: 2,700 chance – of colliding with Earth in 2135.
It's also a carbon-rich asteroid, the cosmic body that could have delivered billions of life-giving materials to the Earth years before. The OSIRIS REx mission is not the first ever to visit an asteroid and attempt a sample return – 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 back the largest sample ever in the order of 60 grams.
In December, the spaceship will begin 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.