Two years and two months after its launch from the Cape Canaveral Air Force Station, NASA's $ 800 million mission for the asteroid belt between Mars and Jupiter will reach a defining moment on Monday when the OSIRIS The agency's REx spacecraft is scheduled to hit its scientific target: a dark, round, carbon-rich asteroid called Bennu.
With a diameter of less than 500 meters Bennu is a small solar system body with great scientific potential: Astronomers suspect that the asteroid rock composition remains almost unchanged since its foundation about 4.5 billion years ago. Collecting and analyzing a sample of the asteroid could tell scientists much about the origins of our solar system, its planets, and the source of organic molecules that may have caused life on Earth.
But before anyone can move through a system Bennu sample, NASA must first collect and retrieve it. This requires several key steps, of which the first Monday begins at 9:00 am, when OSIRIS-REx (short for Origins, Spectral Interpretation, Resource Identification, Security Regolith Explorer) arrives Bennu and begin his month-long process of surveying the surface of the asteroid. You can follow the arrival on NASA TV (above), where the agency broadcasts live from mission control between 11.45 and 12.15 (ET). NASA also sends an arrival preview program, which starts at 11:15 (ET).
After arriving in Bennu, OSIRIS-REx will spend several weeks moving around the asteroid collecting data on mass, topography and composition. The spacecraft begins its survey at a distance of about 12 miles and flows into a series of low-pass overpasses about 800 feet above the surface of the asteroid before entering the orbit of the asteroid on New Year's Eve. If NASA succeeds, Bennu becomes the smallest object the agency has ever orbited.
At this point, the goal will be to identify a safe and scientifically promising sampling site. Notice, we said "example" – not "landing". OSIRIS-REx never sets on the surface of the asteroid. Instead, in a series of maneuvers currently scheduled for mid-2020, the spacecraft will fly to the surface and hover close enough to collect a sample of the surface of Bennu with its 10-foot robotic arm. The mission planners of OSIRIS-REx aim to obtain a minimum of 2 ounce sample, although the spacecraft is designed to hold up to 4.4 pounds of space dust. In any case, it will be the largest sample NASA has collected since the Apollo missions in the 1970s.
Assuming that everything went well by this point, OSIRIS-REx will leave Bennu in the spring of 2021 to start his two-and half a year back to Earth. But we are one step ahead of ourselves: Before OSIRIS-REx sets off on the way back, he has to dance with Bennu for several years. This dance starts today.
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